I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 8, leave out "eighteen" and insert "twenty".
The Amendment is supported by a number of hon. Members on the other side of the House who have added their names which for technical reasons are not printed on the Notice Paper. In short, it has the support of most of those hon. Members who sat on Mr. Speaker's Conference, together with a number of other hon. Members who did not take part in the conference.
I suggest to the Committee that it should pay great attention to the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference for two reasons. One is that it is an important constitutional body, an important part of our Parliamentary set-up whose purpose is to consider changes in our electoral system in a non-party atmosphere. For that reason it has on it a large number of hon. Members from all parties, and, therefore, any decision which is arrived at by that body after due and full consideration should be sympathetically considered and accepted by the House unless the Government bring overwhelming reasons why the conference was mistaken. They have not done so in this case. Moreover, I suggest that special importance should be attached to the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference when its decisions are unanimous, or nearly unanimous, as they were in this case. Greater weight should be given to the conclusions of such a conference when its members devote a long time and much thought to the consideration of the problem put to them. It is probably fair to say that they gave more attention to the problem than could possibly be devoted to it by any member of the Government.
The recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference was arrived at after a full review and consideration of the Report of the Latey Committee. The conference accepted the view of that Committee that the age of majority for civic and private purposes should not necessarily be the same. It is strange that that view was not accepted by the Government, who based their case on the recommendations of the Latey Committee but deliberately ignored that most relevant paragraph of its Report.
I was a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference. Is it not a fact that we found some difficulty in getting a unanimous view on the age reduction? In the end, 20 was found to be the age to which members of the conference could agree, with one possible exception. I do not think that it goes any further than that.
I do not think that my hon. Friend's comments are really relevant to my point. When any Committee considers a problem, its members see if it is possible to have a consensus of opinion and get general agreement on it. That is normal procedure, and it happened in this case.
The views of Mr. Speaker's Conference were based on the considerable investigations by its members, who studied all the sources relevant to the matter before them. That review was a very wide one. While the proceedings of the conference cannot be reported, I think I am entitled to say that many of its members came to it with a strong bias in favour of reducing the age to 18. As a result of their inquiries, however, they concluded that 18 was too young and that 20 was a more appropriate age.
My hon. Friend is quite right. That arises out of the situation. As a result, those who took a certain view and supported the conclusion of the conference can only put forward to the Committee their personal view of the grounds on which that conclusion was reached.
It is suggested by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that it would be anomalous if the Government accepted the recommendations of the Latey Committee on the age of majority, as they intend, and the age for voting were to be different. I do not see that that would be unreasonable or improper. Mr. Speaker's Conference and the Latey Committee were asked to consider two entirely different aspects of the age of majority, and I cannot see any reason why Parliament should not accept the recommendations of both bodies. Does it matter if there were an anomaly here, provided that there are good reasons and sound sense to support it? But, I do not think that there is any anomaly.
Another argument advanced is that it would be unjust to have different ages of majority for the two purposes. I do not think that there is much substance in that. Just because, in future, a young man will be able to enter into a binding hire-purchase contract or marry without parental consent at the age of 18, surely he will not suffer from any sense of injustice if he is told that Parliament has decided that the voting age, which is entirely different, should be 20. The argument about injustice is not a strong one.
I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that the important issue is the age of mental maturity reached by young people which should entitle them, in the interests of our electoral system, to have a vote. We all agree that 15 or 16 would be too young and that 25 would be too old. Therefore, we have to consider the right age from the point of view of mental maturity.
At what age can we expect young people to be able to form serious judgments about public affairs? That not only depends on a person's age and education, but on his experience in the workaday world.
We had little evidence about maturity, and none at all about an earlier age of maturity compared with that of days gone by. If there was any evidence that people matured mentally at a younger age today, one would have expected it to come from teachers and other educational sources. We had no such evidence. We had to fall back on personal judgments and, accordingly, our decision must be an arbitrary one. There are no hard facts upon which that decision can be made.
When it comes to one's own judgment, one can only depend on personal experience and advice from those best qualified to know. Having discussions with people associated with student groups and clubs, teachers in senior schools, universities and a large number of other bodies, we came to our decision. It so happens that a number of members of Mr. Speaker's Conference are closely associated personally with bodies concerned with adolescents.
It has been argued that, although the view may be that young people at 18 are not sufficiently mature mentally to judge reasonably about political affairs and differentiate between the records and policies of different parties, the same can be said of a large number of adults. No one denies that. However, it is a very bad reason for adding three million new voters to the register. I hope, too, that the Committee will appreciate that that is an average of 4,800 in every constituency. That cannot he right if we believe that most of them have not reached the age at which they can be expected to make an informed and balanced judgment of the claims of the various parties.
I have had a large amount of correspondence from people all over the country confirming that view. I want to quote a sentence from a letter which I received from a person who is not a constituent of mine and who writes:
I was recently reading your speech in Hansard on the Government's considered lowering of the voting age, and I consider that this will be absolutely disastrous. When I was 18, I was easily led by communist, fascist, anarchist and other such ideas"—
The letter goes on:
'Now, however, I consider myself capable of consid.sing politics seriously.
That is typical of the view of large numbers, if not the majority, of young people in Britain.
As I said in a previous debate, we received convincing and overwhelming evidence that most young people between the ages of 18 and 21 did not want a reduction in the voting age. It is not that these people, when asked if they wanted the voting age reduced to 18, were indifferent and said, "We really do not mind." They were definitely opposed to the idea and thought it wrong that the voting age should be reduced to 18.
At annual meetings of the Hansard Society, 2,600 youngsters of about 18–sixth formers in London and its outskirts—were asked each year, "Do you think the voting age should be reduced to 18?" and each year their overwhelming response was "No." The 18–21 Club, in the Midlands, polled 3,000 of its members and got a two-to-one response of "No." A similar poll was carried out among more than 1,350 readers of the Catholic Herald, and they replied in like fashion.
If the right hon. Gentleman believes that a whole section of the community should be deprived of the vote because two-thirds of that section does not want to exercise it, what is his view of the local government election figures when only about one-third of the population bothers to turn out? Is his argument that they should all be deprived of the vote for that reason?
Not at all. We are talking about the Parliamentary vote. If one asked groups of 15-year-olds if they wanted the vote one might get the same two-to-one response against having it. That is no reason why the one-third who said, "Yes" should have the vote at 15.
There is no public demand by young people for a reduction of the voting age to 18 and there is strong evidence to show that they would rather not have this reduction. Such demand as exists comes from very small groups, such as the Young Liberals and Young Communists. Their views must be respected, but there is no demand of any significance for this change.
My right hon. Friend has given statements from academics—teachers and the like—to support his argument. Has he any evidence to show the views of parents, and are not those views important?
The views of parents were not sought. My hon. and learned Friend will agree that the views of young people in this matter are the important ones.
People who do not want to vote at elections need not vote. That is true, and I am sure that a large number of youngsters would not vote even if the voting age were reduced to 18. The question, however, is not only whether they want to vote, they dislike coming within the voting age range, because of the pressure that would be put on them through national campaigns, families and all the other means that are used at election time to induce people to vote. They want to avoid those pressures. [Interruption.] I do not know why some of my hon. Friends object to my reporting these facts to the House. I am quoting what was reported to us as the result of inquiries made among a large number of students and other youngsters.
Is my right hon. Friend seriously suggesting that the only way to protect people from the pressures that are brought at election time, despite their wish to participate in politics, is to disfranchise them?
Would my right hon. Friend accept that a random survey of public opinion is not the same as a selective survey of the opinion of particular groups? He is entitled to say that the members of those groups hold the opinion which he is stating, but he is not entitled to express the opinion of the young people of the country as a whole.
I am reporting the views of 18 to 21-year-olds whose opinions were sought as they were gathered in groups. It was reasonable to expect that they would express a representative view on a political issue of this sort. Hon. Members may say that it is unfortunate that they should hold that view. If an opinion poll were conducted throughout the country the general opinion might be different, some hon. Members may claim, but there is no reason to suggest that it would be. Indeed, based on the evidence put before us, I believe that such a general poll would reveal a similar opinion.
I hope that it is generally agreed that the experience and knowledge of the world which people should possess before they vote should be related to the time during which they have been out in the world and working; in other words, the gap between the time of leaving school and voting. It would be unfortunate if the vote were given to young people only shortly after they left school. when they had very little experience of wordly affairs.
In the minority report of the Latey Committee evidence was given from the well-known sociologist Mr. Musgrove. In his book, "Youth and the Social Order" he wrote that the raising of the school-leaving age
…will be a decisively regressive step in holding youth back from the assumption of adult or near-adult responsibilities.
An increasingly large number of youngsters are now remaining at school after their 16th birthday. We hope that, within a few years—despite the postponement of the raising of the school-leaving age—many more will stay on beyond 16 to 17. I suggest that one or even two years' gap between the time when youngsters leave school and vote is insufficient and that it would be wiser to make the gap wider.
The question then arises whether, if the age of 18 is too young—and many of us believe that it would be—there should be any reduction in the voting age at all, and, if so, whether 20 would be the right age. I remind hon. Members that if we reduced the age from 21 to 20 we would not be reducing it not by one year but by one year and five months. Under the old registration system nobody could vote until five months after attaining the age of 21. We are proposing, therefore, a reduction of 17 months. We felt that the age of 20 was reasonable, first, because with the acceptance of the Latey Report, the symbolic significance of the age of 21 disappears—
My right hon. Friend is consistently misrepresenting the position which arose at Mr. Speaker's Conference. [Hon. Members: "Rubbish."] I am challenging him because he is consistently misrepresenting it. Seven different views were expressed at the conference, but in the end a number of my hon. Friends agreed to the age of 20 only because it was argued that if a reduction to 20 were not made, the Tories might not agree. However, their real view was to go much further, and my right hon. Friend is well aware of that. He should not misrepresent what occurred at Mr. Speaker's Conference.
This is an important matter. I rely upon my right hon. Friend to report faithfully to us, as I know he will, the basis of the decision of Mr. Speaker's Conference. But I should like to put a straight question to him. He is asking us, in his powerful case, on the authority of Mr. Speaker's Conference, for reasons undisclosed, to accept the age of 20, because that was the recommendation. It is a powerful reason, but if we are to accept that authority I must put this question to him.
Did Mr. Speaker's Conference arrive at the age of 20 because it believed that it was the right age, or was it a compromise between differing points of view? If the first, I should like to hear why 20 is thought to be so superior to 21. If it was a compromise, frankly the question of any authority of Mr. Speaker's Conference departs as an argument, because it was a bargain. Therefore, the Committee will reach its own conclusion. I am asking a question and drawing deductions. I should be grateful if my right hat. Friend will tell us what the position was. I know that he will put the picture fairly.
As I said earlier, many people came to the conference biased in favour of 18. We had a great deal of discussion and argument in the course of which people's ideas moved, particularly in the light of information that they obtained. At the end of the day there was general agreement, first, that there should be a reduction in the voting age and, secondly, that the appropriate reduction should be one year to the age of 20.
Further to that point of order. I suggest that the Committee should not be led astray. The House took its decision on Second Reading on the basis that Mr. Speaker's Conference could not be reported. There is a great deal of material on the subject. I do not want to enter into argument, because I hope to make a speech later. We ought not to have procedural references at present about ordering things to be printed, because—
Order. I would remind the Committee that there are many hon. Members wishing to speak in the debate. I hope that hon. Members who dissent from what is being said by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) will endeavour to wait until they catch my eye and make their contribution in that way.
With respect, this time on a point of order. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary asked a specific question of a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference. He has given a reply which I regard as the opposite of the truth. It is the entitlement of the Committee that another Member be heard—[Hon. Members: "Withdraw."] It is untrue—[Hon. Members: "Withdraw."]
I am sorry to intervene after all these points of order, but it is important that we should get the matter straight. Some of us voted for the age of 20 purely on the ground that that was the best we could get. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will emphasise that, so that the Home Secretary is not misled.
It would be unfair to the Committee if I lengthened my speech by the long period which would be necessary to deal with all these interruptions. I have already sat down about 10 times. It would be unreasonable for me to give way again. I had hoped to make my speech in about 10 minutes.
The conclusions of Mr. Speaker's Conference are expressed solely in figures of voting. That inevitably happens. But those who took part are entitled to express the conclusions at which they arrived and to indicate that other Members came to the same conclusions. That is what I was doing, and I was giving the reasons why it was thought that the age of 20 was reasonable. I and others thought that 18 was too young and would be bad for our political system and our parliamentary democracy.
One reason why we agreed on 20 was because the age of 21 as a magical figure had disappeared. We thought that there was a case for some reduction in the age, partly because of the Latey Committee Report's recommendation that the age of majority in other matters was being reduced substantially. But our decision was largely based—I have admitted this the whole time—not on concrete evidence that 20 is the correct age, but from the opinions of a large range of people intimately connected with young people.
There is, in fact, a little hard evidence —certainly not conclusive—that the age of 20 is a certain watershed for young people in reaching maturity. There is a sharp drop at the age of 20 and there is no drop at the age of 18 in the number of young people found guilty of indictable offences. That may be some evidence acceptable to the Committee.
We also had in mind the experience of other countries. There is no reason why we should be bound by the experience of other countries or why we should not take our own line. However, we cannot ignore the fact that in every parliamentary democracy in the world, with five exceptions, the voting age is 21. There are four exceptions where the voting age is lower, but only to the extent of one year, namely 20. That is one reason why we accepted the age of 20.
Four of the exceptions are Switzerland, Australia, Japan and Sweden. In one of the most progressive and liberal countries, Denmark, the voting age is 23. For that reason, among others, we thought that we would be justified in recommending a reduction in the age to 20, and I hope that the Committee will support that recommendation.
The last matter I want to raise is that the Whips will be put on when we come to decide this matter of major constitutional importance. This is not only an issue of constitutional importance, but one on which Mr. Speaker's Conference has come to a near unanimous decision. It is wholly wrong and a constitutional outrage in these conditions, not that the Government should recommend what they like to this Committee—they are entitled to do that—but that they should compel support on this side by the compulsion of the threat of the Whip, particularly as large numbers of hon. Members on this side of the House take a different view from that of the Government.
This decision to put on the Whips is indefensible. It is one which, on constitutional grounds, I cannot accept, and it is, I know, much resented by my Friends —those who accept 18 as the voting age as well as those who accept 20–that they should have to vote under the threat of the Whip. I hope that my hon. Friends who take the same view as I on this constitutional aspect of the matter will carry their protests into action when the Division is called.
I am glad to support the Amendment which has been moved by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), to which, with some of my hon. Friends who were also members of Mr. Speaker's Conference, I added my name last week. I warmly endorse what he has said. It is a very great pity that his integrity was challenged as to what transpired at Mr. Speaker's Conference, and for the sake of helping to put the record straight I shall have more to say about that in a moment.
The right hon. Gentleman said, and I am sure that many hon. Members on both sides agree with him, that it was regrettable that the Whips should be on today. I point out that they are on only on the Government side: there will be a free vote on this side. I suggest that in exercising our discretion, using our judgment and doing our duty as Members of this House there are two main matters we should bear in mind on this issue. The first is that we shall be taking an irrevocable step today, and the second is that in taking that step we should make sure that it is one that will strengthen our Parliamentary democracy, at a time when it needs strengthening, rather than weaken it.
The right hon. Gentleman and I were members of Mr. Speaker's Conference throughout the whole of the three years. Others came and went, but he and I continued throughout it. So did my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) and the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock). There may have been other hon. Members who sat throughout. It was the first Speaker's Conference for nearly a quarter of a century, and those who were chosen to sit on it represented, I think, all shades of opinion here. But the interesting and to my mind the impressive thing about it was that we were largely unencumbered by party attitudes either in discussion or in voting.
Before we discussed the voting age we had submitted to us a mass of information—statistical and otherwise—representations and official advice. We also had the benefit of our own inquiries and our own experience: I am in the rather strange position today of having a daughter aged 20 and another aged 18. In view of the attitude adopted by the Government it is also relevant to point out that we did not start our discussions on the voting age until after publication of the Latey Committee's Report—and I will have more to say about that Report later.
With all that before us, and after long, thoughtful and, I believe, constructive discussion, what did we do? The first thing we did was to consider whether the voting age should be lowered to 18. Paragraph 1 of Cmnd. 3550 records that we rejected by 22 votes to 3 the Motion that the minimum age should be 18 years. But we could not just leave the matter there. There was another Motion before the conference that the voting age should be 20. We reached the conclusion, by 24 votes to 1–very nearly unanimous—that it should be 20.
I do not think that any of us who were on Mr. Speaker's Conference would claim that Parliament should be utterly bound by our recommendation, but what we do say, and we say it especially bearing in mind the voting figures of 24 to 1, is that those who wish to reject that recommendation should have strong reasons for doing so. The right hon. Member for Vauxhall, who is a man who uses, perhaps, stronger language than I do, spoke of overwhelming reasons, and I would not quarrel with him there. Those who wish to put forward reasons for rejecting the recommendation should state those reasons fully and clearly so that they may be discussed and considered before this Committee takes a decision tonight.
As far as I know, the only reason, and if there are other reasons it is certainly the principal reason, for the Government not accepting our almost unanimous recommendation was that as they had accepted the Latey Committee's recommendation that the age of majority should be 18 the voting age should also be 18. That reason is not strong enough, and I shall analyse it. It is not even logical. It only has the merit of tidiness.
The Latey Committee did not obtain evidence on or seek representations about the voting age. Indeed, in paragraph 25 of its Report it states:
And on the subject of voting we have carefully refused to express a view.
But it concludes that paragraph with the words—and these words are surely relevant to this debate
We do not accept that the civic and the private field either would or should necessarily go together; on the contrary, it could be argued that only an unnaturally high age of majority has kept the two in line as long as it has.
It follows from that statement by the Latey Committee that it envisaged the possibility that while the age of majority in relation to private rights might be 18, the voting age might either remain at 21, or perhaps be reduced to 20, or even to 19, but that it should not necessarily be brought down to 18.
The Latey Committee recommended several minor differentials for various capacities. I stress that they were minor differentials and I do not set great store by them but, for what they are worth, the Latey Committee said that 16 should be the age of consent to medical or dental treatment and 18 for blood donating—and how it reached that conclusion I have no idea at all. Then there is the more obvious view that 16 should be the minimum age of consent to marriage or intercourse, but that parents' consent is required at 18. In other words the Committee took the view, and it is a view that I am sure we should accept, that people mature at different ages for different purposes.
All the Latey Committee's recommendations relate to personal and private rights and obligations, not to public ones such as jury service, the age at which one can become an M.P. or serve on a local council, or the age at which one can vote in Parliamentary or local government elections. In considering the voting age we are dealing with something bigger than private rights and obligations, we are dealing with a situation where individuals have to raise their thoughts and their decisions above those matters which come within the limited horizon of their own personal affairs.
Voting at elections, especially Parliamentary elections, is not merely a right. It imposes upon the individual elector a serious duty to use his own judgment to decide what is best for his family, his country and himself. Many people over 21 feel conscientiously that they have not the ability to decide how to vote and that is perhaps one reason why as many as 20 per cent. of the electorate do not vote at elections at all.
There is no doubt that with every year that passes the issues facing the electors become more complex, and government becomes more remote. No doubt there are other steps we could take to put that right. On the other hand, fortunately, that tendency towards complexity and remoteness is to some extent offset by the general raising of the standard of education. But the raising of standards has not been enough nor is it likely to be for a good many years, bearing in mind the stresses in our educational system, to save many voters from bewilderment. The younger they are, the more bewildered they will be, because they have not had the experience and time to sort out the issues which arise.
The realities of the present Parliamentary situation are such that our decision is not whether the voting age should be lowered, but whether it should be lowered to 18 or to 20. In coming to that decision, as I suggested at the outset, there are two main considerations and I should like to explore them more fully. The first is that, whatever we do, it will be irrevocable in the sense that the voting age will never again be raised above whatever level we decide upon today.
We therefore need to be quite certain that what we are doing is right, that the present electorate wants us to do it, and that those upon whom we are placing the responsibility are ready to bear it and wish to do so. Those are the factors we must bear in mind. Although I do not feel strongly about the need for any change, on balance, I think that it would be an advantage if those who have ceased to be teenagers should assume responsibility and should have the right to vote. I am quite sure that most people aged 18 and 19 do not want that responsibility; their elders do not want them to have it and there are serious doubts as to whether enough of them would fully realise what they were voting about.
That brings me to the second main consideration which should influence our judgment about this. Recently, the whole Parliamentary system has been thrown into question. The Press, television and the public are constantly complaining that we are not as able or as honest or as industrious as they would like us to be. They also complain that the results we achieve are not good enough. Much of that criticism is unfounded. I reckon that the vast majority of Members have every right to be called honourable, and are worthy of the trust placed in them. We would be very rash indeed to ignore that criticism, however. It should surely make us want to see our Parliamentary system strengthened, not weakened.
We would, therefore, be most unwise to reduce the voting age to a level which did not seem likely to strengthen the Parliamentary system. At this stage we need voters who are fit to elect the sort of politicians needed to grapple with the difficult problems of our age. This can only he a matter of judgment, it has to be an arbitrary decision up to a point, just as the original age of 21 was arbitrary. Reducing the voting age to 20 could strengthen the system, more especially, strangely enough, if the Latey Committee proposals are accepted and brought into force, because then young people would have had two years' responsibility, looking after their own affairs and will then be better qualified to vote in Parliamentary elections.
To reduce the voting age to 18 would, in my cpinion, weaken the system in the long term. I am quite sure that to reduce it now irrevocably to 18 would seriously weaken our democracy, our Parliamentary system, and I will vote against it, subject to what may be said in the debate, although I am not likely to be convinced to the contrary. I do, however, think that there are advantages in reducing the age now to 20.
The Committee has just listened to a characteristically reactionary speech from a right hon. and learned Gentleman who is not only suspicious of young voters, but who is suspicious of all voters. That is the kind of philosophy that has inspired the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) throughout these debates, and I am not surprised to hear him repeating it today. He had the temerity to talk about bewildering young voters. He and his colleagues do not have a bad record over the years in attempt- ing to bewilder older voters. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, who was apparently responsible with his party colleagues for the Post Office savings scare, and the Zinoviev letter, talks about bewildering young voters!
This is deep suspicion of the democratic process we have listened to, and has nothing whatever to do with the voting age. All that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was saying he could have said about voters aged 22 and if his real opinions were probed it would be shown that he feels the same way about that as at 19 or 20 years of age—or about women for that matter.
The party opposite has opposed every decisive changeover for many years, except on one famous occasion when, for electoral advantage, it switched very quickly, to dish the Liberals. To be constantly philosophically suspicious of the electorate is characteristic of the attitude of the right hon. and learned. Gentleman. This was the attitude that I found on Mr. Speaker's Conference when I became a member of it a few months after it started work. I quite deliberately—
The electorate take their decisions not on one single point, but on a whole spectrum of policy. No hon. Member on either side can claim that he personally determines the mind of the electorate. Therefore, the whole point is without value. We are not dealing in personalities—[Hon. Members: "Oh."] The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that quite well that throughout the proceedings of Mr. Speaker's Conference we got on very politely and listened to each other.
I was about to say what has made me deliberately disclose what happened and how the age of 20 was arrived at. It is that we face in this Committee a point which we did not have to face in Mr. Speaker's Conference; we are reporting and putting a gloss on what happened in the proceedings in that conference. The Chief Whip of the Liberal Party knows that this was a problem we did not have to face in the conference.
If we had turned to that problem, I would have been as vehement then as I am today, because, in the absence of the minutes of Mr. Speaker's Conference —we need not now take time by arguing how advantageous it would be to have the minutes; I wish we had them—I repeat that the account of how the age of 20 was arrived at given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) is totally misleading. I am prepared to accept the challenge that, by special Resolution of the House of Commons, the minutes should be put at the disposal of every Member to test the statement I have just made.
The last thing in the world I wish to do is to prolong the hon. Gentleman's speech. Does he understand that the difficulty which we are in is one which he and I, being both newcomers to Mr. Speaker's Conference, found ourselves in on our arrival there—that the decision had been taken in a previous Parliament and, it having been taken and the conference having lasted into the next Parliament, it would scarcely be altered? I share the hon. Gentleman's view that in the interests of accuracy there should not be any misreporting.
With his usual courtesy, the hon. Gentleman has tried to comment on how long I shall speak for. He knows that I normally disregard his views on that. I intend to do so this afternoon. I shall say what I have to say and what I think should be said, without the benefit of advice from him. The less he listens to me, the better I shall be pleased. To return to the serious aspect, I said that I would welcome a special Resolution of the House of Commons. The account which has been given is totally misleading.
No. I want to get on. I have only just given way.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary asked a very precise and important question. Having pointed out that my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall had argued that some special merit attached to what he has claimed through- out is the decision of Mr. Speaker's Conference, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary then asked, "If Mr. Speaker's Conference decided purely on merit that 20 was the right age, that is one thing, but if compromise played a part might not a completely different view be taken of the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference?" This is why it is important to have a clear view of how the decision was arrived at.
My hon. Friend will surely acknowledge that it is wrong to attempt to say what motivated the votes of each member of Mr. Speaker's Conference. It is as wrong for my hon. Friend to do so as it was for my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) to do so. It is comparable in its effect to trying to say what motivated a jury. The fact that the recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference was overwhelming is significant. This is the one fact we can grasp. My hon. Friend's motivation was clearly different from that of his hon. Friends and possibly different from the views of those who supported him in his point of view.
There is a considerable difference between Mr. Speaker's Conference and a jury. It is now claimed that this decision was arrived at purely on the merits. During the next few minutes I shall endeavour to show that this is not true. It is not a question of guilty or not guilty. It is a question of how certain philosophical views on politics played a part in reaching a compromise.
From the beginning, most of the representatives of the Tory Party on Mr. Speaker's Conference did not want any reduction in the voting age. They wanted to keep things where they were. Some of them in their secret thoughts probably wanted to increase it to 25, if possible, but they did not have a chance to propose that. That is the point from which we started—not from a clear table, but with a determination on one side of Mr. Speakers Conference not to have any change at all.
When I first arrived at Mr. Speaker's Conference, the first argument put to me by some of my very senior right hon. Friends was, "Any attempt to get the age down to 18 or 19 is doomed to failure, because the Conservative members will have none of it. The only chance there is, because they want to keep it at 21, is perhaps to entice some of them on to 20".
The hon. Gentleman does not know what my colleagues put to me. as that question shows, because he was not there for that discussion. He is a dear colleague of mine, but he was not there at the time of that discussion.
Without accepting what my hon. Friend has said, may I ask whether he considers it right to report to the Committee private conversations which took place between hon. Members? If we start doing that, we could go very far and report all sorts of personal, private conversations which would not necessarily redound to the credit of those involved.
This is a policy. If policy views were expressed, and if compromises were the real basis of arriving at the age of 20, I am in duty bound to make the case and provide the evidence. Many such informal talks took place. Every member of Mr. Speaker's Conference knows that what I say is true. It started at 21 and people took the view that it would not be posible to get anything better than 20.
The second point that I wish to make as evidence is that the bare bones of the Report do not disclose the variety of views expressed in the official proceedings of Mr. Speaker's Conference. Great play has been made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall and by the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire of the final vote, when only one member voted for 18, although previously there had been three. Neither my right hon. Friend nor the right hon. and learned Gentleman reported anything to the Committee—this has nothing to do with personal integrity; those who report often select; that does not reduce their personal integrity; it is the common parlance of parliamentary work; I am trying to put right an inadequate report—about the members of Mr. Speaker's Conference who proposed the age of 19.
The impression was given by my right hon. Friend and by the right hon. and learned Gentleman that it was just 24 to 1 against 18. That is nonsense. Several hon. Members had all sorts of differing views. One proposed 19. Others did not go so far as to make a definite proposal. Various reasons moved those Members to have all these differing points of view.
In some senses, Mr. Speaker's Conference is like a Select Committee. On any Select Committee, if hon. Members find that as they move along their proposals do not seem likely to be accepted, and if it is put to them forcibly, "After all, you want some reform. You want to move in the right direction", often they will recognise that it is no good standing out and they accept a compromise. There are present today very senior and some junior Members who have experience of Select Committees and who know that on every Select Committee there is a strong pull at some point to reach some sort of agreement. There is every reason to report fully to the Committee that that element was a factor in Mr. Speaker's Conference.
No, it is not significant, because the work of Mr. Speaker's Conference was not carried on on party lines. The argument was addressed to the issue, and Members listened carefully to one another.
What I am saying is that, as the argument had gone on for some time, the pull which exercises itself in any Select Committee to try to arrive at an agreed solution played an important part in Mr. Speaker's Conference. No one who was there could gainsay that; it is a simple matter of reporting. That being so, the case is fully made, that the answer to the question put by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary ought to be not what we have heard so far, that the age of 20 was arrived at purely on merit or on the evidence, but that it was arrived at as a characteristic compromise.
There is, therefore, nothing sacred about it. It was a compromise, as often happens in such a conference or committee. Therefore, the recommendation has not the force which my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall has said it would have as a decision arrived at purely on merit, and this Committee of the House of Commons is entitled to form its own view on the matter. There is no force of pure merit behind this majority recommendation.
I turn now from that question, and I can speak much more quietly. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Yes, I say that deliberately. I move back now into the argument over the issues.
The reporting of what actually happened at the conference had to come first. My hon. Friend says "Hear, hear". I come now to a point with which he was particularly concerned, namely, the question of the Latey Report. Here I record another strange experience which I had in Mr. Speaker's Conference. When I joined the conference, I tried several times to persuade my colleagues to discuss the voting age, but I always failed. The hon. Gentleman who is the Liberal Whip knows that I failed on every occasion over many months.
The answer given by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides was that we could not possibly discuss it then but we must wait for the Latey Report. Month after month I was told, "Wait for Latey". I shall come to the significance which my right hon. Friend now attaches to the Latey Report and its conclusions, but for many months everyone was waiting for Latey.
I assumed that enormous significance must be attached to the conclusions of the Latey Committee once it reported. Then the time came, and it was decided to have an interval during which the Latey Report could be studied. However, as soon as the Latey Report came out, a good many members of Mr. Speaker's Conference, including some of my right hon. Friends, immediately turned 180 degrees and said, "Latey is wholly irrelevant to the decision on the voting age".
I deny categorically what my hon. Friend is saying. I was in the conference at that stage and I was present when these events took place. No one said, after the Latey Report came out, that it was irrelevant. Indeed, what we decided in waiting for it was that it was relevant. But it was not conclusive.
With great respect to my right hon. Friend, I repeat what I said a minute ago, that several right hon. and hon. Members who were members of Mr. Speaker's Conference said, after the Report had come out, that its conclusions were irrelevant for our purpose on the voting age because Latey had considered private responsibilities, not public responsibilities. I stand by that statement.
The obvious reason for waiting for the Latey Report to be published before we started our discussion was so that we could be even more fully informed than we were from the mass of material we already had, not to follow slavishly anything which the Latey Committee said.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is coming closer to the point I am making. There was never any question of slavishly following the Latey Report or any other Report. What was argued after the Report had been studied was that Latey had been talking about private responsibilities, which were quite different from public responsibilities, and that it was, therefore, not relevant to our discussion on the voting age. The response of certain other members of the conference and myself to that was that the reason why the Latey Committee had not given a recommendation on the voting age was that that question had been excluded from its terms of reference. That is the truth of the matter and the real reason.
What my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and others of us argued in Mr. Speaker's Conference, and what I am arguing today—this is the substance of the whole matter—is that, although the Latey Committee did not pronounce on the voting age, if the Government accept, as they have, and if Parliament accepts, that these tremendous new responsibilities should be given to young people from the age of 18, responsibilities in the law of contract and many other respects, it is absurd to say that those same young people must not take any effective part in determining the political fortunes of their country.
That is the substance of the argument. Nobody has claimed any more. Nobody has claimed that we must slavishly follow any Report. It is to obscure that simple link that so many speeches and comments have been made with a view to drawing us away from the real reason why Latey is strictly relevant to the issue we are discussing.
The reference to people who do not vote—of course, we were all opposed to compulsory voting—is irrelevant, too. Those who do not vote are not necessarily more bewildered than many who do vote. In some cases, not voting is a deliberate political decision of highly sophisticated people who are less bewildered than some of those who might be voting for some hon. Members at an election, to put it no higher. The point is bad and irrelevant. What matters on the question of the right to vote is that the individual should be able to decide for himself or herself whether to vote; that right should not be denied under our Constitution.
I have one further point to make. This whole discussion—I refer to the discussion at large, not merely to our debate today—is of the greatest importance. One finds in it expression of a philosophy of distrust—it comes from both sides of the Committee—a philosophy of distrust of the electorate, not merely young electors. In the opposition to the Government's proposal to reduce the voting age, one senses clearly a philosophy of distrust of young people. All sorts of arguments are adduced.
On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall talked of Scottish nationalists and followers of dictators, of people in different parts of the country who take one view or another on affairs of the day. What right has he to prescribe what views the voters should take in the future? The point is wholly irrelevant, it has nothing whatever to do with the discussion, and it should never be introduced. This is not the occasion to go into the faulty evidence which he presented on Second Reading. The whole argument is impermissible.
We have to make up our minds. There may not be another Speaker's Conference for 25 years. Is it right to make the change proposed on the ground of Latey's conclusions and on the powerful argument that our young people must be given opportunities to integrate themselves into the normal democratic political life of the country? There have been many speeches urging the Home Secretary to use the police against demonstrators. That is all some people seem to think of. There are many at these demonstrations who feel frustrated but deeply sincere and who find that there are not many ways which they can take in the ordinary political processes of the nation.
Is it not a far superior and more democratic way to say to them, "We may not agree with what you regard as reasonable or right, but here is your chance. Come in and argue with us. Take part in selecting your Parliamentary representatives. Make it your business to see that the democratic political life of the country is strong. Do not turn away from Parliament. Do not turn away from the ordinary processes of political decision-making". That is perhaps one of the most powerful reasons why the Government are right, and why I hope that the Committee will support the reduction of the voting age to 18.
I am very fortunate and glad to be called immediately after the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson), because I usually enjoy his speeches. But his speech today was very off-tone for a debate on the kind of subject we are considering. There was no necessity to imply the wrong motives to hon. Members on either side of the House. I do not imply the wrong motive to him, if he takes a different line to me on the subject.
The most fascinating part of my Parliamentary life was to be a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference for three years. Possibly because we worked behind closed doors, we worked as a completely non-partisan gathering. I still think that, on balance, we were probably right in our decision in the very early days in 1965 about publishing reports of the discussions and the minutes. I do not think that if those minutes were to be published we should have had quite such frank discussions as we had, because we knew the whole matter was in confidence.
The right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) has this afternoon made the principal argument on which most of us reached our decision, but as the motives of many members of Mr. Speaker's Conference have been impugned today I should tell the Committee my reaction on the subject. I shall vote tonight for the Amendment that the voting age be reduced to 20. It would be rather absurd if I did anything else, as I was a member of a conference which, after much deliberation, decided that that was the recommendation it would make to the House.
When we started to think about the problem I was by no means wedded to 21 or 20, and I saw a good many arguments for the reduction of the voting age to 18. There are strong arguments on the matter. Reduction to that age does not mean that all young people vote at 18, but that they get on the register at 18. For Parliamentary elections it means that quite a number of people will not vote until they are 22 or 23. Therefore, I did not start thinking about this with any in-built prejudice that I should fight to the death for 21.
There is nothing sacrosanct about the voting age of an electorate. But the more investigations I made the more I came round to the view that 18 at the present time was not the right age for the electorate. I inquired of perhaps the largest and most active young Conservative branch in London, which took a poll of its members on whether they wanted the voting age from 21, which is not the proposal before the Committee. Sixty-five per cent. were for no change, 25 per cent. were for a change, and 10 per cent. did not know.
So that we may judge the validity of that evidence, how many of those polled were over 21 and already had the vote, and were, therefore, legislating as we are purporting to do, for those under 21? Has any national opinion poll or random sample on a national basis been carried out of the age group we are talking about –18 to 21?
I return to what the right hon. Member for Vauxhall said, that there is very little hard evidence on the matter. The branch I am citing had about 500 members, of whom about 380 voted, which is a fairly high proportion. That is evidence that the Committee can consider. I am not saying that it is the law of the Medes and Persians, but that the Committee should consider it.
Everywhere we inquired we found—in my case much to my surprise—that there was very little support among the young for the reduction of the voting age to anything like 18. Many of them bluntly said that they did not think themselves qualified and that they did not want the responsibility, that they had other problems on their mind, such as their education. I am not saying that they were right, but simply that that was their reaction, which helped to influence me in forming my view.
When we began to debate the matter in Mr. Speaker's Conference I found similar views coming forward from other members, both Labour and Conservative, as a result of their investigations. They had gathered the same sort of general picture, and my mind began to harden against my earlier idea that perhaps 18 was a reasonable age for voting. It was purely as a result of the discussions in Mr. Speaker's Conference that I eventually decided that 20 was a reasonable age at this time, that it would get a large body of support both inside and outside the House, and that now that Latey had reported there was no longer anything sacrosanct about 21.
I took into account in forming my view that it would reduce the numbers of unfortunate people who just miss one General Election and, therefore, are fairly old when voting in the next. But we must take into account that the same age will apply for local government elections, and that means that the great majority of young people will be able to vote in local government elections at 18, and not simply come on to the register at that age.
I also discovered, again rather to my surprise, that whereas young people all seem to have a pretty good knowledge of our national affairs, Parliamentary business and so on, a great many of them had far less knowledge about local government and felt less competent to vote in local government elections. Many of them had been away from their district or were occupied with education, and were not thinking about local problems, but through national Press, radio, and so on, they knew quite a lot about national problems. Many of them told me that they fell far less fit to deal with the nuts and the bolts of local government because they knew very little about it owing to their previous preoccupation with their education.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's point, but does he not agree that his statement about the attitude of young people to local government is reflected throughout the whole electorate? We have the evidence of the very low polls at local elections, which indicates apathy and lack of interest and knowledge on the part of the electorate. I cannot believe there is a great deal of substance in the hon. Gentleman's point. If he follows the logic of his argument, it might very well lead him to disfranchise the majority of electors at local elections because they show very little interest.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's views, but if he had listened a little more carefully he would have realised that I was not saying that I want to disfranchise anyone. I was telling the House of the attitude I found in gathering the information on which I could form a judgment in Mr. Speaker's Conference. I am not saying that that, at the time, was my view of local government. It was merely the information and knowledge I collected in my search for a sound judgment at the conference. I was a little surprised by the attitude I found, but it helped me form my view as to what should be done.
The other over-riding reason for moving cautiously is that, if we decide that the voting age should be 18, we shall never have an opportunity of raising it again if we find that we have made a mistake. It will be a mistake for all time. On the other hand, if we reduce the age to 20, and the House decides in five or 10 years' time that the age can go lower still, it can be done; and in a further 10 years, if the House feels that the age can still further be reduced, it can do so. But we should be very cautious about lowering it by too much in one go in case this results—and I admit that I do not say this with great conviction—probably not in an irresponsible, but, what is more likely, in an electorate of unsound judgment. If we drop the age too much at one go, this House could well regret it in the years to come.
In any case, if we decided to reduce the age to 20, we should be doing nothing to stop it coming down to 18 eventually. On the other hand, if we decide on 18, we shall never get it back to 20 if we find that we have made a mistake. This is where caution should remain supreme.
It is not as though there is great feeling in the country for this alteration amongst the young or anyone else. I am sure that hon. Members have been astonished by the small amount of publicity this proposal has received and by the small amount of correspondence they have had on the subject. There is no burning desire among the old that the young should be enfranchised or among the young that they themselves should be enfranchised and, therefore, able to turn the views of their elders upside down.
I have given a great deal of thought to this and, as a result, I have settled for a higher age than I would originally have settled for. Because we should be cautious, we should accept the Amendment. In doing so, we should be doing nothing irrevocably wrong. We should be reducing the voting age and would not be stopping the House from taking further action in future. If we once go too far and, as a result, get a less responsible electorate, and therefore perhaps a less responsible House of Commons, we shall have done the democratic process more harm than perhaps we realise today.
When I first came in to listen to the debate, I doubted the wisdom of the Government's proposal. Having heard every speech so far, I am utterly convinced of the righteousness of the Government's cause. It is surely rare to hear such a quantity of sanctimonious guff from both sides of the House in such a short period.
The hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) told us, first, that there is no demand among young people for a vote; secondly, that they are not fitted to have a vote; and, thirdly, that, if they got it, it would damage the House of Commons. Those are three arguments that Mrs. Pankhurst would have understood very well, because they are precisely the arguments which have been used against any proposal to extend the franchise ever since the Reform Act, 1870. If there is a choice in constitutional matters of this sort between caution and boldness then I prefer the boldness of the Government's proposal to the hon. Gentleman's caution.
The hon. Gentleman is turning the argument upside down. This is the first time the House has ever considered reducing the voting age. When the people were enfranchised. they were enfranchised at the age of 21, with the exception of women for a short period.
I do not want to be drawn into an historical argument with the hon. Gentleman, whose memory is longer than mine. But the voting age for women was not reduced to 21 until 1929, and what we are here talking about is an extension of the franchise to a section of the population now denied the right to vote—precisely similar circumstances to those considered in the past.
I come now to the validity of the decision of Mr. Speaker's Conference. It has been said on both sides that we should be careful about what we do today because, after all, Mr. Speaker's Conference does not meet very often and there might not be another one for 25 years. Having heard the squabble between members of the conference this afternoon, my reaction is, "thank heaven". The one thing one can say about Mr. Speaker's Conference is that those members of it who have spoken in this debate, either in interventions, questions or speeches, purporting to give a report of what that conference considered and decided, do not agree. To put it at its coolest and most neutral, the evidence as to what Mr. Speaker's Conference wanted to do is negative.
Before my hon. Friend goes on speaking of Mr. Speaker's Conference, he should bear in mind that it is very much like the Cabinet in this context. We did not ask the Cabinet how it arrived at its consensus on House of Lords reform, for example. This is not a squabble. It is my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) against the rest.
I was not a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference and, therefore, all I can do is judge by what I have heard and seen today. The great difference between a Cabinet decision and a decision by Mr. Speaker's Conference is that I have yet to hear a Cabinet Minister at the Dispatch Box opening his case by saying, "We had a full discussion on this in the Cabinet and by an almost unanimous decision we agreed that this proposal ought to be made", and then go on, with all the authority of his Ministry and his Cabinet membership. to add "We heard a great deal of evidence. I thought it impressive, but I am sorry—we cannot tell you what it is"
What we are being asked to do is to accept not only evidence which is not available to us, but to endorse a decision which was not unanimous and in the taking of which the motivations of those involved differed. I put it no higher than that. In considering whether or not to reduce the voting age to 18, the decision of Mr. Speaker's Conference ought to be taken as one of the factors in our calculations. It should not be followed slavishly.
The balance must therefore be weighed between two sets of decisions—on the one side, Mr. Speaker's Conference, and, on the other, the Latey Report. The Latey Report is a document containing a great deal of evidence. It is a public document and a full report, after mature consideration, which I can read. I can decide whether I think that it paid due attention to this or that portion of the evidence and I can therefore make up my own mind whether I believe it to be a good or bad report. The Latey Report is strong evidence indeed for concluding that the age of social responsibility among young people has now been reduced from 21 to 18.
I heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) and the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) and the hon. Member for Ormskirk all agree that each Member of Mr. Speaker's Conference made a subjective decision. Each tried to apply not an objective test to decide how to determine at what age a person ought to be entitled to vote, but rather each applied a subjective test of the age of mental maturity. Mr. Speaker's Conference decided, on what evidence I know not, for the evidence we have not seen, that it was prepared to make the subjective judgment that mental maturity is reached not at 21, but at 20. I strongly believe this test and this approach to be utterly wrong. If a test of mental maturity were to be applied to decide entitlement to vote, the first thing to happen would be the disfranchisement of large chunks of the electorate at present on the registers.
I must, I fear, leave that to my hon. Friend to develop. If one attempts to equate mental maturity with the age of voting, one is bound to run into difficulties, because, clearly, there are sections of the adult population who would not be entitled to take part in an election if they first had to pass a maturity test of responsibility or intelligence. I therefore utterly reject this equation of maturity with age.
What one ought to try to do is to arrive at a more sensible test as to the age at which people ought to be allowed to vote and I would suggest one very simple test. People ought to have the right to vote and to have a say about the way in which their lives are governed and in which their country is run, at the age at which society expects them to assume adult social responsibilities, and I do not see how that age, which the Latey Committee fixed so cogently and persuasively at 18, can really be separated totally from the voting age which Mr. Speaker's Conference wanted to reduce to 20.
After that interesting argument, can the hon. Gentleman explain how he thinks that it was right for his party to include in its last election manifesto a conclusion, which was not based on any evidence which we have seen, a conclusion which was adopted, that the reduction of the voting age to 18 should be Labour Party policy?
I am pleased to note that at last the hon. Gentleman has realised that occasionally the Labour Party is in the forefront of respectable opinion. The fact that he cannot evade is that since the Labour Party came out in favour of votes at 18, there is now some persuasive and cogent evidence to back up that decision.
The hon. Gentleman cannot go on saying "No" to the Latey Report when one of the things which it establishes is that young people now mature earlier and that society ought therefore to fix the age of legal and social responsibility at 18. It is absolute and arrant nonsense to say at one and the same time that young people are to be entitled to marry at 18, to enter into contracts at 18, and to bind themselves by hire-purchase agreements at 18, but that they are not entitled to vote in a General Election at 18 for a Parliament which will legislate over precisely those things for which they are now to be held responsible.
We have already had two opportunities to debate this matter and I shall, therefore, be brief, because there are many other matters in the Bill which we should all like to consider. However much we argue among ourselves, hon. Members are unlikely to change their opinions this afternoon.
Mr. Speaker's Conference spent a good deal of time discussing this matter in some detail. One or two hon. Members may have changed their minds during the course of those proceedings, but I think that many of them, including the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), had already made up their minds before taking part in the conference and only reinforced their conclusions by some of the matters which were discussed, but to which we are not permitted to refer.
I think that this is highly regrettable and I have said so before. If the Committee is denied the benefit of knowing what arguments were put before Mr. Speaker's Conference, it is that much more difficult for us to come to any conclusion. At the risk of being wearisome I must say that, whatever Mr. Speaker's Conference may have decided—and we all know that by precedent the proceedings in the conference are not made public, the precedents being those of 1918, 1929, and just after the war, and when, as the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) has reminded us, Mr. Speaker's Conference, reappointed after the 1966 election, held that it was bound by the decision of its predecessor, which worked between 1964 and 1966–surely the House of Commons is in a position to say that it believes it to be in the general interest of coming to a sensible conclusion on this matter that the proceedings should be printed and made available not only to hon. Members, but to people generally.
I hear the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) muttering. What is wrong with that proposition? Why should the proceedings of Mr. Speaker's Conference be kept under lock and key and hidden away in a dusty old file for evermore merely because that has been done in the past? It is a ludicrous argument, particularly when increasingly the work of the Select Committees is being opened to public scrutiny with the general approval of hon. Members and those outside who find it of some convenience.
I feel very strongly about this matter. I think that if the House of Commons were to take a general view, and it seems from the speeches made on both sides of the question, not just those in favour of votes at 18, but also those which support the right hon. Member for Vauxhall, we could get some action. I do not know whether a special Resolution is required, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) suggested, but surely we could have some machinery by which to accomplish what is obviously the general desire.
We have heard a good deal of argument about what happened at the conference and how this discussion originated when 24 members approved a reduction in the voting age to 20 and only one was against. It is important to get it straight that three members voted for the reduction to 18, but when that was defeated, I at any rate approved of the reduction to 20 on the basis that it was the most we could get. I was afraid that if we did not get the voting age down to 20, we might finish where we started with the age at 21. My vote was not a vote approving the proposition that the voting age should be 20, but merely a vote for having some alteration and an expression of my fear that the conference might go right back to where it started.
The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) and the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) are forming a sort of alliance. The hon. Gentleman will admit that 22 out of 25 members voted against having votes at 18, so that he cannot say that there was a great division of opinion in the conference at that time.
I am merely arguing with the right hon. Member for Vauxhall and others, who say that the decision was practicaly unanimous, at 24 to 1, asking for the voting age to be reduced to 20. The Home Secretary wanted to get this clear, and I am explaining it as best I can. Hon. Members changed their minds. To be quite specific, of the three hon. Members who supported the reduction to 18. on the second vote one abstained, one voted for the reduction to 20 and one voted against, I think it was the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson). I hope that I have not committed a breach of privilege.
I accept the right hon. and learned Gentleman's rebuke. I referred to this only because the Home Secretary seemed to think it was of some importance. It did occasion a very heated argument between the hon. Member for Penistone and his right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall a few minutes ago. I am sure that no one would want to accuse the right hon. Member for Vauxhall of trying to mislead the Committee. It is just a question of how one puts these things, and I felt it necessary to explain in detail what happened. Taking the right hon. and learned Gentleman's advice, I hope that we can now leave that point.
I turn now to the views of the young people, to which the right hon. Member for Vauxhall attached some importance. I must begin by apologising to him because in the last debate we did not give the sources of this opinion poll which he has quoted on several occasions. I asked what the source was, and what sample the poll was based on, remarking that one could not be expected to take it very seriously when we did not have those facts. On rereading the previous debate I find that he did tell the House that it was a Hansard Society meeting which was attended by 3,000 young people, who were asked what their opinion was on the reduction of the voting age to 18. The figures were as he gave them.
He also quoted, what he called an important body operating in the Midlands, called the 18 to 21 Club. In his speech in October he said:
I know nothing about it except that it is a non-political body."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th Oct., 1968; Vol. 770, c. 65.]
That generally means, in my vocabulary, that it is composed of Tories. The voting at this club was two to one against a reduction in the voting age. The right hon. Gentleman does not tell us how many of the 3,000 members of this club who were circularised bothered to send back the forms, so that we do not know what the total poll was. I do not understand how he can say that it is an important body, when he knows nothing at all about it except that it is non-political.
The point made by the hon. Member for Penistone, that these polls of a club or the Hansard Society are not necessarily representative of what young people would say if it was possible to put the question to every one of them throughout the country, is important. If one is to ask for evidence on this subject, the best figures that can be quoted relate to the correspondence sent to the Latey Committee, which the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) will recall.
Although the Latey Committee was specifically told not to look at the question of the voting age, it received a large volume of letters on this subject–387 to be precise. It is interesting to look at these figures. Of the total, 96 argued in favour of a reduction in the voting age to 18, whereas only 48 believed that the age of 21 should be retained, so that the figures given in this correspondence to Latey are precisely the opposite of those quoted by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall—exactly two to one in favour of a reduction in the voting age. In case anyone says that these figures do not add up, there were other letters which advocated an age of 16, 18, 19, 20, 24, 25, but by far the vast majority were concentrated on 18.
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for making this point. The one thing with which I agreed in the speech of the right hon. Member for Vauxhall was that this is a subjective decision. One cannot measure things like maturity, although the Latey Committee passed some general observations on this subject in the first paragraph of the Report. Basically we have to make up our own minds on this question, and we can do that only on the basis of the discussions which we have with young people in our constituencies and with others whose views we think important, but that again is a subjective matter. It is a subjective matter whether the right hon. Gentleman thinks that the Hansard Society is more important than the 387 letters submitted to Latey. I agree that these figures really do not mean a great deal, because the samples are very tiny in relation to the total population—
Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that until we began to discuss the question of votes at 18 it was not a question of importance at all? There are three public schools in my constituency, and I reckon that I will have three extra meetings at the next General Election, because they all have a sixth form and many of these sixth formers will have votes. I have had three letters, two against votes at 18 and one in favour. Can the hon. Gentleman tell me what those figures mean?
I do not know why the hon. Gentleman bothered to intervene. I thought that we had just agreed among ourselves that neither the figures given by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Vauxhall, which related to a sample of 3,000, nor the 387 letters submitted to Latey really help us to make up our minds. I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman thinks that three letters which he has received from public schoolboys in his constituency will break the back of these problems, in view of the numerical difficulties I have referred to.
May I turn to the argument put forward by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall and the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton). Perhaps this is relevant to the point made by the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis), and it is whether these young people would know what they are being asked to make up their minds about if they vote. Of course the two right hon. Gentlemen implied that they did not have the mental maturity or the background and experience upon which to form these extremely important decisions. I take the opposite view in relation to voting and other responsibilities dealt with by Latey. It appears to me, and this is an arguable and maybe controversial point, that the decision whether one gets married, and various other things, which were the subject of the Latey Committee's Report are a great deal more far-reaching than the exercise of the vote in Parliamentary elections. Cumulatively of course, the vote is an important thing. The hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) has been telling us what dire consequences will flow from allowing these young people to vote.
The hon. Gentleman rather implied it. He said that we would never have another opportunity of looking at this question if, unfortunately, we found that we had made a mistake. It would be too late to reverse the process. How will this mistake manifest itself, supposing that these young people lack the judgment, maturity and knowledge to enable them to come to sensible decisions?
The hon. Gentleman has anticipated me. Supposing, at the next General Election, we find that a vast majority of these young people between the ages of 18 and 21 vote Conservative, then hon. Members opposite will say, "We have made a mistake; they have obviously displayed the grossest form of political immaturity." On the other hand, if they were to vote Labour, the hon. Member for Ormskirk would make the same kind of remark. That would prove my case.
On a previous occasion, the right hon. Member for Vauxhall argued that young people would vote Scottish National and Plaid Cymru in Scotland and Wales respectively and that that was very much an argument against giving them the vote. This displays the most terrible arrogance. It is no business of the right hon. Gentleman how people use the vote once it is given to them. The fact that a lot of older citizens vote Scottish National does not mean that people in Scotland should be deprived of the vote and disfranchised. No one would make such an utterly undemocratic suggestion.
The right hon. Member for Vauxhall may think that these people are misguided; the Secretary of State for Scotland probably does. But that does not mean that we should impose some hindrance on them in the exercise of their free discretion any more than we would if people under the age of 21 were given the vote. In any case. I do not accept what the right hon. Gentleman says. We may have misled ourselves. Because in certain elections we find that young people are taking a fairly prominent part on the side of the nationalists, we think that they represent the majority of the population between 18 and 21. It may not be true at all. This is something which we shall discover only with experience.
I cannot accept for one moment the proposition that if we reduce the voting age to 18 it will seriously weaken Parliamentary democracy. The opposite is true. When we see young people on the streets demonstrating practically weekend after weekend, this shows that they feel left out of the political system as we know it, and the best way that we can involve them in Parliamentary democracy, which we want to retain, is by giving them the vote.
The right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) said that he was bored by Mr. Speaker's Conference. So was I. I served on it—far too long. It went on for three years, and those people who were on it at the end did not know what had happened at the beginning. I could not have known, because it started soon after 1964 and I was a Minister. Then I was co-opted on to it in 1966.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary attempted to take up the composition of Mr. Speaker's Conference. He said that we should know whether this was a deliberate decision and by what terms we made this decision. I might just as well ask the same question about the Cabinet. I am entitled to ask by what measure of subjective reasoning the Cabinet came to a consensus for that crackpot idea about House of Lords reform last week, especially when any amount of its members have since come up to me and said, "Charlie, include me out".
All that we can say is that at the end of the day Mr. Speaker's Conference registered a decision. I do not put it higher than that. But it is something that, after two or three years of waiting for Latey, we came to a decision. The time which Mr. Speaker's Conference spent on this matter was far greater than the time which the Cabinet could have spent. What we want to know is how the Government came to their decision. I do not wish to plead in aid Mr. Speaker's Conference. Just as it is improper to ask by what rationale Mr. Speaker's Conference took this decision, so it is improper for me to ask how the Cabinet came to its decision.
It is not on this point. This matter has been flogged too much by those who have spoken before me. I want to leave it now.
It is said that we waited for Latey. Of course we did.
I am sorry, Mr. Gourlay, but you will understand that it is difficult when somebody is breathing down my neck. With my customary politeness, I wished to reply to my hon. Friend.
We waited all that time because the question of the voting age was outside the terms of reference of the Latey Committee. It was reasonable that we should see what the Latey Committee had to say. If it had said that the age should remain at 21, this argument would not have arisen. It was only because Latey introduced the question of the younger age of 18 that the matter was brought to our attention.
I am not much concerned with what Mr. Speaker's Conference decided. I made up my own mind. I did not compromise, because that is not my fashion, no more than it is the fashion of my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson). On balance, I originally thought that it was best to leave the age at 21. Why did we come down in favour of 20? We already allow for Y voters, and the annual register is only an annual register; it is not a six-monthly register. Therefore, in view of the number of people who vote first only at Parliamentary elections at about the age of 23, this brought the number affected down considerably. Bearing in mind that we are dealing with 17 months because of the rearrangement of voting dates, this considerably brings down the age, so that practically everybody will vote at 21. If we bring down the voting age for Parliamentary elections, it naturally follows for municipal elections. This was my reasoning.
I wish to blow sky high the idea that nowadays people are more mentally mature than they used to be. This is nonsense. I joined the Labour Party and my trade union at 16.
I can quite believe it. I do not mind serious interventions, but I do not want juvenile frivolity. I joined at 16 because that was the age at which my trade union allowed apprentice members to join. One could join the Labour Party at 16. I was one of the original members. I never joined any Labour League of Youth.
My hon. Friend had better not tempt me too much.
When the great engineers' struggle broke out in 1922, when I was 20 years of age, I was not allowed to vote for a national strike. If the Amalgamated Engineering and Foundry Workers' Union had recently recommended a strike and put it to a ballot vote of its members, nobody under the age of 21 would have been allowed to vote. I had a word with my national officer about this the other day. He said that it was far too serious a thing for that. The argument "Old enough to fight old enough to vote" is completely spurious. Over 50 per cent. of the young people will be women who would not be called upon to fight, and this is an argument which is usually advanced by people who have no intention of fighting for their country anyway.
On the last occasion when the House cast a vote on this subject no one pleaded a younger course. The age of consent in the Sexual Offences Bill was 21, and if the age of 18 had been suggested the House would have thrown out the Bill.
Paragraph 565 of the Latey Report states:
Nor has it been shown that earlier physical maturity has been accompanied by greater mental or psychological wisdom. The limits of the British Medical Association's evidence about this were traced in paragraphs 536 and 547 above. The National Citizen's Advice Bureaux Council do not see significant signs of earlier emotional maturity to justify an optimistic view.
If the hon. Member had allowed me to conclude I would have said that it was the minority Report, and it is none the worse for that. These are facts which are not controverted.
The nub of the argument is how the young people feel about it. The result of my inquiries of young people is that they consider the years 18 to 21 to be bitter years. How many marriages of those under 21 are stable? It is quite frightening. Although the Latey Report considered that marriage contracts and the signing of contracts were matters for people under the age of 21. the casting of a vote, I consider, is in a different sphere. Broadly speaking, young people up to the age of 21 are largely concerned with their own position and prospects in society. It is only as we get older that we become larger in compassion and tend to think of others. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] I am sorry, but that is my experience. I think that there is a good deal of cruelty in the young. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] At any rate, I hope that I am more compassionate now than when I was 20.
I do not know why my hon. Friend tries to make himself look so much older than he is. This must surely be the first time in history when the great social advance of allowing these people to vote is being granted without it being asked or fought for. There has been over the last 50 years a great struggle for the franchise, the struggle for women's emancipation. and so on, in which one has taken part. Surely we will not now say that this is something just to be offered. I consider that the franchise is a great privilege. If I ever feel humility it is on election day when people young and old pile in and out of my committee rooms to lift me on their shoulders to express a view which is bigger than themselves.
One of my hon. Friends said that we should not ask whether these votes will go to the Scottish Nationalists. I say that we should ask. Scottish Nationalism in my opinion is one-eyed lunatic politics.
I do know; and I express my opinion. After all, my hon. Friend is of Welsh derivation battened on to a Scottish constituency. In my view the 20th century has shown that nationalism is an evil. We have to consider the world as a whole. I hope that no one would look at the casting of a vote purely in the context of being a Welsh-man, a Scotsman or an Englishman. A vote cast in this House is a vote not only on behalf of our constituents but probably on behalf also of 4 million people in Rhodesia. We must take a larger view of politics. I am told that the granting of the vote at 18 would mean that many of the seats of my party would be lost to the Scottish Nationalists. I should consider that an evil.
The people who speak of being Clause Four Socialists had better remember that Clause One of our Labour Party constitution is the mandate to maintain our party in Parliament and not throw it away recklessly. They must be responsible about this. I am not able to convince anyone here very much, but I speak to convince myself.
I look with compassion on my hon. Friend. He lives near to me and I often ask myself why people vote for him.
I approached this matter after reading the Latey Report, after seeing the balance of the arguments in the Latey Report and speaking to a great number of young people. Those young people considered that this was a responsibility which they did not want. The minority Report states that we should be putting a burden on shoulders sometimes too young to bear it. It seemed to me, for the reasons which I have stated, that 20 was the proper age. Even my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone would not think that I would be lightly diverted from that course in order to secure a compromise.
There are those who say that the vote should be given in order to prevent the demonstrations which have recently occurred. There were demonstrations in my day for far worthier causes, such as unemployment, which occurred in the re- volutionary period following the first world war. This is not a new manifestation. In those days it was not suggested that people must be given a vote. Is it thought that the casting of a vote once every four or five years will get this nonsense out of their systems? Of course it will not.
To explain why these happenings occur now it is necessary to seek deeper into other causes. It is possible to choose the age of 16 because it is the age of consent for girls; it is possible to choose the age of 21 because it is the age of consent for boys; but these are not the criteria by which we came to a decision. The Speaker's Conference represented a consensus of what I believe. I cannot say what was in the minds of other people who took part in that conference. In my own honest opinion, this is the right age at which to give a person the vote. I say that after the greatest study and consideration arising from a lifetime of experience of moving among people in politics. I must cast my vote tonight in support of that opinion, because I can cast it in no other way.
There is no magic in any age. Some people mature a great deal earlier than others. It may be that it depends upon their natural talents or environments. All that we have to do is to try to discover, if we can, the age at which most people are sufficiently mature and responsible to be allowed to vote. It is a matter upon which we all have different opinions, and I am only sorry that right hon. and hon. Members opposite are not to be allowed to express those opinions.
I take the view that there are responsible people on the benches opposite, many of them with children of their own of perhaps 18, 19 or 20, and they meet young people of those ages in their constituencies. I am sure that they could form their own judgments about whether such young people are capable of exercising a vote. It is unfortunate that they are not to be allowed to back their judgments in the Division Lobby.
We shall see. In my view, young people should have the right to vote at 18 and, for once, the Government are right. I came to that conclusion very forcibly in the course of a by-election which I fought recently when I met a great many young people who told me that they had no vote. I was greatly impressed by them as being people of responsibility who ought to have been allowed to exercise a vote. I remember meeting a 19-year-old girl who was heavily pregnant and who said to me, pointing to her rotund figure, "I am old enough for everything else, but not to vote." There was a young woman running a home, looking after a husband and about to start a family, bearing all the responsibilities of life, yet not having a right to vote.
Whether the Government's proposal will have any electoral repercussions remains to be seen. Obviously the Labour Government consider that it will help them to give young people the vote at 18. If they think that, they miscalculate. Young people of 18, 19 or 20 whom I have met recently struck me as the sort of responsible people who will vote Conservative—[Hon. Members: "Oh."]
We ought not to consider that matter. We ought to give them the vote if they are capable of exercising it. It is wrong to consider what may be the electoral repercussions. If we think that they are capable of exercising the judgment required, they should have the vote, remembering that there is no cut-off point at the other end. When people become old, senile and incapable of exercising a vote, we do not deprive them of it. It must be remembered, too, that most young people are taxpayers. Most of them are single people and heavy taxpayers. It is a breach of the principle of no taxation without representation to deprive them of the vote.
I gave evidence before the Latey Committee. I urged that young people under the age of 21 should not be allowed to marry without their parents' consent. I still think that the lifelong contract of marriage is of such grave importance that young people under 21 should not be allowed to enter into it without their parents' consent. However, that is not to be compared with the franchise, where quite different considerations apply.
It is said by some hon. Members that young people do not want the vote and that there is no great demand for it. That may be so, but, after all, this is not Australia, and voting is not compulsory. People need not exercise the vote if they do not want to. I submit that these young people at least should have the opportunity of participating in the Government of this country.
It is not unusual for me to disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell), but, normally, I respect what he says even though I disagree with it. That was true towards the end of his speech when he rose to the level which I am accustomed to expect from him. However, in his earlier remarks, when I tried unsuccessfully to intervene, it was appropriate that he should turn his back to the Chair because, for most of the time, he was speaking out of the back of his neck. When he reproached the Cabinet for implementing Labour policy in this connection—
With great respect, I insist that it is. When he reproached the Cabinet in that way, it seemed to me that he was taking away something which most of us were very glad to have. It is rare for the Cabinet to be in line with the general view of the party. It is something that we should nourish and not throw back in their teeth. This is an occasion when we find ourselves in unity with the Cabinet, and it is one that we should make the most of and take to heart.
As an example of what I felt was not up to my right hon. Friend's normal level, he appears to nurture minority decisions when they are made by the Latey Committee, but he brushes them aside when they are made by Mr. Speaker's Conference. It seems that he has one rule for Mr. Speaker's Conference and another for the Latey Committee.
My right hon. Friend and I must disagree about that. At least, I have given him the opportunity of making his point.
Moving the Amendment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) spoke of the fact that the Whip is on. I do not think that that is out of order on this occasion, but I do not think that the punishment which will befall a right hon. Member of his standing and experience as a result of going into the Lobby against the Government will be very harsh. My right hon. Friend need not worry too much. Possibly it will be no more than the equivalent of a slap across the wrist with a piece of candyfloss.
Mr. Speaker's Conference is an important body. I was going to say that its decisions were important, but not sacrosanct. Having heard how some of its decisions were reached I doubt whether they are even important. In any event, the final decision is for us, not for Mr. Speaker's Conference.
The Labour Party's intention in this respect s one which the Cabinet has probably taken into consideration in reaching its conclusion. But on both sides it has been suggested pretty strongly that if the decision to make the voting age 18 is carried out, it will be to the political disadvantage of the Labour Party. This has been strongly hinted at here and elsewhere. I doubt this. I wonder whether those who believe it to be true have considered the political consequences of not now going back to 18. I suggest that if we take their advice and shilly shally, the political consequences will be very bad for the Labour Party. If we follow the Cabinet's advice we will do what we think to be right and what we should do, and the political consequences will look after themselves.
My experience of talking to young people about the nature of different problems is that they are as capable as anybody else—possibly more capable than some of fairly advanced years—of weighing up and considering the issues before us today. For this reason I will heartily support the decision in the Bill and will oppose the Amendment. I hope that a substantial majority of hon. Members on both sides will throw this Amendment out, which is what it deserves.
Despite what was said by the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson), I have no distrust of the young people of this country and no worries about the way in which they will exercise their votes if this proposal for votes at 18 is passed. My worry is not so much about the responsibility of people between the ages of 18 and 21, but that we should act responsibly in dealing with the matter.
It surely cannot be denied that a change to 18 will mean a very drastic change in our constitution. We have heard that it will mean 3 million new voters on the register and that more new voters will be going on the register at one time than ever before. It is, therefore, a drastic reform in the constitution which is being proposed, whereas votes at 20 would be a moderate reform to which we are used and no doubt it would be acceptable to the country at large.
It seems odd that a change should be advocated when it is patently obvious from the speeches which have been made today and on previous occasions that there is little, if any, pressure for it. I speak with some experience about this matter. I was anxious to speak today because I thought that the Committee might like to hear the impressions of someone who has faced the electorate more recently than most other Members.
The hon. and learned Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Bruce Campbell) said that a lot of young people at the Oldham, West by-election showed political interest. I do not think that he was suggesting that people were coming to him in their tens and hundreds and complaining that they were unable to vote because they were under 21. The meetings at the Nelson and Colne by-election, which I fought, were all well-attended. There were plenty of young people at those meetings and the question of votes at 18 was raised only once—by a questioner who was obviously hostile to the proposal.
People nowadays talk glibly about participation. I should expect those anxious to participate, yet feeling themselves unable to do so without a vote, to come forward and say so. But no one this afternoon has challenged that they do not. They are not coming along and saying that they feel unable to participate because they are deprived of the vote. Therefore, the argument about participation is so much bunkum. If anyone is politically interested, yet under 21, there is no need for that person to have a vote to participate in politics in this country. I cannot forget my own entry into politics. When I went up to university at the age of 18 I had no difficulty in participating in politics. I did not feel that my political interest grew when I passed the magic age of 21 or that I had been deprived of anything when I did not have a vote during the first years when I was playing a part in politics.
One argument which does not seem to have been advanced with much force today is that, somehow or other, if we give votes to people at 18 we will reduce student unrest. It has been suggested that all that will disappear in the twinkling of an eve—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Penistone will remember that I said that this argument had not been voiced strongly today, but I have heard it voiced on other occasions. It is not a strong argument, because most of the people leading the student unrest deride the whole democratic process as we know it, and a vote within the system would be heartily despised by them. It would not console them in any way.
My feeling about the matter is that logic is not on the side of the Government. It seems to be suggested that, because of the proposals made by the Latey Committee, logic is on the side of those who want votes at 18 and not on the side of those who want votes at 20. I acknowledge that logic can be pushed too far, but there is a certain logic in the proposition that we should expect the privilege of voting when we have finished our education, not before. It seems somewhat absurd that we should be seriously discussing a proposal which, if passed, would lead to more schoolboys in their sixth forms having the vote. Although logic can be pushed too far, there is a certain logic in the proposition that the vote should be a privilege bestowed upon the young person when he has completed his education.
I appreciate that. I was the first to say that logic must not be pushed too far. Hon. Members opposite have been saying that logic is on their side because the Latey Committee's proposals support the suggestion that there should be votes at 18. On the other side we are entitled to say that if we are now moving into a position where, as the years pass, more people are staying on at school and having the benefit of university education, or some further education, that is an argument for postponing the franchise rather than the reverse. I put it no higher.
I see no connection between a man being able to have a mortgage or a hire-purchase agreement and a man being able to vote. There will never come a time when men and women will assume all legal responsibilities at the age of 18, a point which has been made by hon. Gentlemen opposite. That time will not even come when the Family Law Reform Bill becomes law and the Latey Committee's proposals are implemented.
Nobody has suggested that the age of majority for criminal purposes should be 18, that at 18 a young male offender should immediately go to prison and not borstal, that for a girl the age of consent to sexual intercourse should be raised from 16 to 18 to bring about uniformity or that the Sexual Offences Act should be amended so that a boy of 18 can consent to a homosexual act in private. We will not get uniformity, even if all the Latey proposals are implemented, and that is a good argument for not talking so much about Latey and instead looking at the merits of the case.
Whatever the merits, a radical change like this should not take place against the advice of a body like Mr. Speaker's Conference which, for all the arguments today, discussed and considered this matter for a considerable time. A change of this nature should not take place unless there is clear evidence of demand for it. I am prepared to accept the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference, which represent the sort of moderate reform which will have the support of the nation as a whole.
As I listened to the remarks of the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Waddington) I began to wonder whether he intended to produce some arguments in favour of refusing the vote to virtually everybody. He seemed to imply that nobody really had the right to vote. He said that young people between 18 and 20 should not vote, because they did not want it. As they did not want to vote or participate in politics, he maintained that they should he given the vote as a privilege bestowed on them only when they had earned it. That argument could be used about the population as a whole.
I urge the hon. Gentleman to remember that that is not what the argument is about. The people of Britain do not get the vote because they earn it. They never have done. We do not enjoy our franchise as a privilege bestowed on us by a benevolent society. If people had to earn the vote, a lot of people would not be entitled to it.
I did not suggest that the vote was something to be earned. Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that, all other things being equal, it is more desirable that people should have the vote when they are mature than when they are immature?
When the hon. Gentleman reads the report of his speech in tomorrow's Hansard I hope that he will compare it with the content of that intervention.
The right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) averred that he was rather bored with Mr. Speaker's Conference. I assure him that we all are. I do not want to say much about it, except that I was once a member of it, and then I left. Considering the remark of the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) about it being a nonpartisan gathering; if the members of Mr. Speaker's Conference in my day were non-partisan, then commend me to a few partisans. The only significant thing that I recall about them is that they all had riproaring prejudices and that they brought them to Mr. Speaker's Conference implacably formed. That has been obvious from the speeches of at least two of my right hon. Friends.
I hope that I will not be out of order in reporting a private conversation. I understand from one of my other right hon. Friends that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) nearly became a Scottish hon. Member in the sense that he almost came to represent the Gorbals. I do not know what might have happened if we had had his kind of cockney and Yorkshire eloquence in the Scottish Grand Committee. What is more, he almost became Welsh, because he supported the majority of Mr. Speaker's Conference by quoting the minority of the Latey Report. He said, in effect, "We decided to discuss votes at 18 only because Latey was discussing the age of majority". My conviction about the rightness of votes at 18 was implanted in me a long time before I ever saw Mr. Speaker's Conference and even before I became an hon. Member of this House.
Many curious arguments have been adduced, not the least the suggestion that young people are not entitled to vote because they lack knowledge of local affairs. There are many people voting in local elections who know very little indeed about, for example, the rating system, the committee system operating in local authorities and even, indeed, the name of the local authority in which they are voting. If this sort of argument is to be held against young people, Lord help some of the over 21s and over 40s. If an examination paper were set on local government to the comprehensive sixth form that I know—the place where I sometimes do a little teaching in British constitution—the pupils would get more marks than many hon. Members of this House. This is not an argument about whether people have knowledge. Again, we do not give people the franchise in Britain because of their knowledge, wisdom and experience. We give it to them because they are people, and that is the only justification.
We have heard some anti-democratic arguments today about young people not having the right to vote because they do not want it. That argument was used against the suffragettes. It was said that they represented only themselves and were not speaking for women generally. "They are only a minority of agitators. The vast majority of women want to sit at home doing their knitting and looking after some man." That was often said when people argued against giving women the vote. The same argument of maturity was used when it was decided to give women of 21 the vote. It was said that they were immature, emotional and not able to discuss things with the same objectivity as men. This is the arrogance of those in power. The same argument is used now. We say that we have the emotional maturity but that these younger folk do not, so that they should not have the vote.
It is precisely this kind of philosophical arrogance which is behind all the governments of colonial powers who have refused to give the vote to subject peoples. This is what Ian Smith is saying; and his friends in this House are saying that these people should not have the vote because they have not been educated. Meanwhile, of course, the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Waddington) implied that sixth formers should not have the vote because they have been educated. I suppose that one pays one's money and takes one's choice in weighing up the arguments, including the ridiculous ones. People have the vote because they are people and because they should vote.
With that impeccable logic which the right hon. and learned Gentleman always commands, he has touched precisely on the subject to which I was coming. If it is not based on education, on maturity, or on the so-called objectivity of which some hon. and right hon. Members have spoken, on what do we base the right of people to have the vote at a certain age?
A purely arbitrary decision, says the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I wonder what all the fuss is about, because all these people want is to stick to age 20. At present the age is 21. We have all this great kerfuffle over one year—reducing the age from 21 to 20. The Amendment seeks to make the voting age 20, but what is magical about 20?
I will tell my right hon. Friend—and I nearly said my right hon. and learned Friend. We have already decided, and my right hon. Friend himself has agreed with this, that in the making of marital contracts and legal contracts these people are to be considered adults—
Would my hon. Friend bear in mind that one can make a marital contract at the age of 16 in Scotland, not 18, and those people have to provide homes, and furnish and equip them? They have hire purchase to pay. If they can pay taxes at this age we should consider letting them vote at this age. And many who are illiterate can vote.
The point is that whatever may be the case in countries outside England, this Parliament has decided that 18 shall be the age for entering into marriage and legal contracts. I am convinced that entering into marriage, where one may marry in haste and repent at leisure, is a much more serious matter than voting in a single General Election. One can vote in a single General Election at age 18 and there is a great deal of leisure in which to repent, but it is not so great, perhaps, as in the case of marriage. One has to wait, even at the most, only five years in order to get rid of an objectionable Government. The difficulty in regard to marriage is that with a wife come other responsibilities, and it is not always so easy to shed them.
I regard voting in a single election as of much less significance than entering into the state of matrimony, and certainly undertaking financial obligations under a legal contract I would regard as a much more serious matter than engaging in just a single election. Entering a legal contract may bind one, not for just a brief period but for life, and if one can at the age of 18 enter into a legal contract of this significance, voting is surely not a more serious obligation.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) tried to distinguish between people maturing at different ages for the two purposes of civic and private rights, but there are some people who obviously mature at an earlier age than others for civic as well as private rights. People vary, and I can well imagine that there are people who mature earlier for the purpose of certain civic rights than, perhaps, for the carrying out of contracts. If it were otherwise, there might not be so many people put in prison for fraud.
When one sums up this debate, all these arguments about maturity, and about ability and about Mr. Speaker's Conference fall on one side compared with this single fact. We have decided that young people become adults at 18. We have decided that argument. This is the point of view which is accepted in all parts of the Committee—[Hon. Members: "No."] We have decided that it is right that people should be able to enter into marriage at 18—[Hon.Members: "No."] Then all I can say is that all this universal commendation of the Latey Report strikes me as being rather odd against the disputing by hon. and right hon. Members on the point I have just made. They universally commend the Latey Report. This is all the argument we have had this afternoon. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not now go back on what he said earlier but that is what the argument has so far been about, and it is precisely the argument that was put forward on Second Reading. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is in a state of unique isolation that is, perhaps, a customary position for him but it is one which need not detain the Committee for very long.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) knows, I am completely in favour of free votes on these issues and I exercised that vote only last week—[An Hon. Member: "In the correct Lobby."] Naturally it was in the correct Lobby. I am always in the correct Lobby—on the side of reason. But hon. Members are entitled to form their views in this respect and, knowing them, I know that they will. I would tell those who peddle this argument about free votes to look at what previous Governments have done with previous Bills. This side has a much better record in exercising individual conscience on any occasion than has the party opposite, so let us have none of that nonsense from the other side. My right hon. Friend is entitled to ask for a free vote, but no one on that side is entitled to demand that this Government should give a free vote, We can, because we are the people who exercise it—they cannot.
I agree with the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) when he says that for any individual the choice of a marriage partner or the entering into a contract is more important and significant to him than is the casting of a vote in a Parliamentary election, but that is not the point of the debate. We are discussing whether or not the two senior teenage groups—some one or two million persons —should be added to the Parliamentary electorate. That is the point which is of importance to the nation as a whole.
I was a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference, but only at the last moment, and only for this particular item on the agenda. I therefore came to it, I hope, with an open mind and with no previous long study of the question.
I have come to regret the secrecy of our official proceedings if only for the reason that an authorised version would correct at least some of the tendentious reports we have had this afternoon and also because the fact of secrecy is somewhat repugnant to this House. Hon. Members would like to know whether the members of Mr. Speaker's Conference were carried by arguments which would commend themselves to hon. Members. To that extent a collective decision must lose weight with the House and make it easier for the Government to ride roughshod over our views.
Most of the members of that conference, certainly the Liberal and Labour members, came to it with some previous commitments. They had fought the last Election on manifestoes recommending votes at 18. The really significant point, and this is all published, is that the conference decided by a majority of 22 to three against votes at 18. Had the majority been a narrow one, say 13 against and 12 in favour, some of the arguments of the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) might have had some weight, but we cannot get over the fact that there was virtual unanimity among those who clearly started from different positions.
As a newcomer, I was surprised that there was not greater interest in this subject, that there had not been more representations about it and that I had not received more. Unlike all previous extensions of the franchise, there has not been great pressure for this change. The suffragettes made plenty of trouble, but there has not been a single demonstration of any significance in favour of votes at 18. I started by wondering whether our purpose was to find an age below which young persons would not feel substantially deprived of their civic rights or, more positively, to find an age when the right to vote began to be valuable and meaningful to society as a whole.
There were some powerful arguments for lowering the age substantially. I was less impressed by the "die for my country" thesis. I preferred the argument, "No taxation without representation", but the difficulty there is that no age is low enough. This makes me wonder why the hon. Member for Woolwich. West said that he had always thought of 18 as the right age and the right answer.
The hon. Member said that it was always implanted in his mind that 18 was the right age. He has great experience of teaching the young. I would have expected him to say, why not 17 or 16? There is no magic about any one year. The argument for lowering the age was linked with the educational progress and development of informed interest among younger people. The political scientist, Richard Rose, has said that if intelligent voting presupposes interest and information in politics, most of the old and middle-aged, as well as young persons, would be eliminated.
I think it is generally agreed that the British people have some flair for politics. If we have political common sense it may perhaps be founded not so much on well informed interest in politics as on a capacity for relating politics to real life as people see it and live it. The feeling is obviously common here that it is a matter of judgment rather than of information. For many people that judgment will be largely instinctive. I do not believe it is any the worse for that.
We had some consensus in that an element fit judgment, a necessary element, is the question of maturity. For most people maturity must come from having some experience of adult life. I think there is a significance here in the difference in time between an earlier school-leaving age and a later age for voting. If one leaves school at 14 or 15 and votes at 21 there is a longer period than if one leaves school at 15 or later and votes at 18. Broadly, I accept the Latey proposals. Young people want freedom to marry and to make contracts. I disagree with so many hon. Members who have spoken today suggesting that therefore the voting age must be the same as the age of majority for other purposes. I simply rely on Latey. I ask hon. Members to refresh their minds by going back to paragraph 25, which the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) quoted in part. I add the quotation of this sentence:
It is a very different thing to cope adequately with one's own personal and private affairs and to measure up to public and civic responsibilities.
Latey said that there was no necessary link between voting age and the age of majority for personal and private rights. If one committee had been charged with both subjects, the age of majority and the voting age, I think it very unlikely—in fact, 100 to one against—any such committee saying that both should be the age of 18. I am sure that would not have happened. It is only because of the split of the subject matter that we have this argument today.
The best reason for proceeding with some degree of caution has been the attitude of the young themselves. It seems somewhat curious that although the professional political parties and youth organisations all put forward their case for votes at 18 except admittedly the Conservative Party and the Bow Group which suggested the age of 20–through the political spectrum we seem to get a greater urgency for adopting the age of 18 in inverse proportion to the degree of freedom which those parties give to their own youth.
As the hon. Member is talking about freedom, would he agree that the best way of showing freedom would be to allow anyone of 18, 19, 20 or 21 to decide for himself whether he wanted to go on the register? Young people would then show an interest, and if they went on the register they could have the democratic right of freedom to decide.
That is an interesting view, but why not start at 11 or 11 plus? How would one preserve such people from the inevitable pressures to go on the register which would be no less than the pressures to exercise the vote?
My experience is that young people when interested in politics take a deep and informed interest. I am not against their having votes, though I would limit it to 20, certainly at this stage. I cannot say that it would be an insignificant move, because my calculations of the number of voters aged 18 and over who would enter my constituency electorate comes to more than 38 times my present majority.
My local inquiries show very little enthusiasm for this project. One can recognise three types of young voters. They are not greatly different from older voters. There are, first, the intelligent and well-informed who may take a close interest. They are most obviously represented by the whole body of students. It is significant that students have not been campaigning for the vote. After their recent conference I wonder whether this may not have been unconnected with the desire of the student leadership not to have their conference transformed from a mainly educational conference into a largely political one. But they do not, because they have no vote, fail to take keen interest in elections. Votes might even deprive them of some of the interest they take in elections in being in a particular constituency on polling day.
If this proposal goes through, I wonder where students will be on polling day. If the universities are up, students will presumably have the choice of postal votes. If it is the vacation, students wishing to vote must presumably stay at home. To what extent is it expected that students could register on the electoral roll if they have lodgings in university towns? It would seem to be possible for political activitists to seek to build up a group of students with votes based on university residents in lodgings, assuming that this was covered at the time that the forms were distributed and completed in October.
Even students who take an interest are not necessarily keen on votes at 18. The most striking reply I received was when I said to a student, "Surely you would like your contemporaries to have the vote". The reply was, "No. I take an interest. Many do not. I would be sorry to see my views, or views like mine, outvoted by a larger majority who cared very little." This is the second category—those who do not know and do not care. We all meet them. The Home Secretary suggested on Second Reading that such people need not take part in an election. That is the worst possible argument for extending the franchise, because there is a vast difference between not caring and the considered abstention.
Thirdly, there are the young and old people who would genuinely like to take a proper interest but who are preoccupied. In the case of the young, they may be adjusting to adult life. They say that they are not yet ready. This becomes significant if the view is taken that at elections people do not so much switch across. What decides elections is whether people adhere to and positively support the party or the candidate with whose principles they are in general sympathy. They form a judgment at any one election on whether the representatives of their fundamental attitude and beliefs is good enough. The question of differential abstention is probably the most important factor. It follows that the young person should have time to acquire independently a general view about life and his attitude to it—a mixture of temperament, inclination and experience—without slavishly following or reacting to parents or teachers. A certain amount of time in adult life is highly desirable.
If the young are in this formative process, I would like to spare at any rate those who would be troubled by the attentions of canvassers and the party political pressures which inevitably would come upon them. If people with the vote are unfixed in their loyalties, we can only assume, politics being what it is, that pressures will be brought to bear to persuade them to adhere to one party or another.
I do not derive any help from what is happening in other countries. It has already been said that, with the exception of the Iron Curtain countries, votes at 18 do not operate in any significant European countries. About six South American States have votes at 18. I prefer the robust democracy of Australia which only last week rejected the proposal for votes at 18 and is sticking to 21.
It has got much to do with it. If Australia is a good representative of Western and Commonwealth democracy, what obtains there is an example which is worth studying and should not be rejected out of hand.
If there is an error on the Latey side and it transpires that teenagers suffer by lack of experience in resisting commercial pressures, or whatever it may be, that could always be corrected by amending legislation. It is virtually impossible to retract any extension of the franchise. So far as I know, it has not been done before.
There can be no finality. It is a matter of subjective judgment. The reason why so many of the arguments have been the same and our speeches have seemed to follow a pattern, with two notable exceptions, is that the arguments have commended themselves to a majority on Mr. Speaker's Conference. The only finality in the matter is the Government's decision to force through what the Prime Minister believes is Labour's gift to the young wage earner. Its effect will be to accentuate the swing of the pendulum against the Government of the day. In this instance it will certainly be a boomerang at the next election. I would think better of the Government, if they wish to reject the findings of Mr. Speaker's Conference, if they were to rely on the mature judgment of the House of Commons as a whole on a free vote.
I shall not follow the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) very far, though I must pass a comment on his observation about pressure groups. I am sure that my hon. Friends must have been touched to hear the concern which the hon. Gentleman expressed for the way in which young people, so fragile and so vulnerable, are subject to the pressures of commercialism. When I take that argument and set it against all the attempts which were made to resist the extension of commercial television into the viewing life of very much younger people than those with whom we are here concerned, I find the hon. Gentleman's argument thoroughly disingenuous.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), in opening the debate, was subjected to a good deal of fireworks from all about him. As one who takes a view different from his, I think it right to note that he deserved a word of praise, even from his opponents, for his good-tempered and good-natured acceptance of a good deal of heckling. I hope that my right hon. Friend will take advice on the matter of voting from my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling). I find that the Right wing of our Parliamentary Party is generally rather more inhibited about staging revolts than the Left wing is. I assure my right hon. Friend that I do not bother much about Whips any more. I mean that in no personal sense; it is just that I have long since lost any inhibitions against kicking over the traces if I think that the matter is of sufficient importance.
I notice that most of my right hon. and hon. Friends who have signed the Amendment, if not my right hon. Friend himself—I have not forgotten his earlier political antecedents, which were honourable—come from the extreme Right wing of the party. I should be sorry, therefore, if they were not given an opportunity to express dissent in their way, as I express it in mine.
A lot of the argument has concentrated on the question of qualifications for voting, and, naturally, a good deal of attention has been devoted to Mr. Speaker's Conference and its outcome. I have no qualifications to speak about Mr. Speaker's Conference. I have not followed much, even in the corridors, the discussions which have filtered through from that body, though, in passing, I must say that I regard it as highly unsatisfactory that its proceedings must be secret. I hope that one consequence of this debate will be that there will be no such secrecy imposed in any future conference, for in that way it will save a great deal of trouble and acrimony.
I can claim, however, to have had some experience of elections rather different from that which most hon. Members have, it that I was the returning officer for a constituency in a developing country and was able to watch the way in which a large number of illiterate people were able to vote. Although the proportion of the total electorate taking part was necessarily smaller than one expects in this country or in most developed countries, nothing impressed me so much as the extraordinary keenness and interest of the voters and their willingness to put up with a great deal of inconvenience in order to register their vote.
There one was talking in the context of people over 21 years of age, but in this country we are, I suppose, for all our failings in education, a better educated people than almost any other in the world certainly than in any underdeveloped country, and it seems strange therefore to hear hon. Members expressing doubts about the ability of people between 18 and 21 years of age to weigh up the issues. One might just as easily put up an argument for saying that, because of diminished mental ability, persons over the age of 85 should be disfranchised, that there should be a senility disqualification. Just as cogent an argument could be advanced for disqualifying elderly voters. I should hesitate to say that in the presence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), but I think that he is unrepresentative of his generation and there are, in fact, many of his age who for reasons of infirmity could not weigh up the situation, as well as many young people.
The central point, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West, said, is that the vote is a right. It is a defence agtinst tyranny. The vote is not always wisely used. One can think of some lamentable examples where people in other countries have used their franchise recklessly, putting into office parties and Governments which have then proceeded to establish dictatorship. But I do not believe that that is a problem which any- one would seriously regard as within the bounds of possibility in this country. Whatever our differences of opinion, and however wide those differences may be across the parties—my own view is that they are not nearly wide enough between the two Front Benches at this time —this is a politically mature country by almost any standards one cares to apply.
I feel that that in itself should be a sufficient argument for extending the franchise, even without the recommendations of the Latey Committee which, by necessary inference at least, have strengthened the argument in favour of a wider franchise.
I think that I should, at least in part, accept the logic of what the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) said when he made a rather frivolous intervention in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West. I can conceive of a situation coming in a few years, with education more extensive, when we might lower the age of voting further. The vote at 18 is no more sacrosanct than the vote at 21. I do not suppose that one can envisage it going much lower, but there is an analogy here with the talk there once was about the times in which certain distances could be run. Before the first four-minute mile, it seemed impossible for a man to do it, yet it has been done many times since. I do not press the analogy further, but I do not accept that those who hold up their hands in horror at the lowering of the voting to 18 and regard as utterly unbelievable the thought that it could go even lower, are likely to prove right in the end. We may yet, in years to come, see the voting age lowered further.
If one accepts the argument—it seems to command a fair measure of support on both sides—that a decision to marry is for the individual a more important decision than a decision to vote, one should remember that one has for years had the right to marry, subject to consent, at the age of 16. The idea of further lowering the voting age is not, therefore, as preposterous as some may incline to think.
I am glad that the Government have taken the stand which they have. I do not often find myself able to give them wholehearted support nowadays. It is nice to see them doing something robustly radical for a change, and, as a reward, I promise them that they will have my support in the Lobby tonight.
That promise must have given the Government tremendous heart. The Chief Whip probably feels that the rock of ages has been removed from his shoulders and he can cease to worry about how to hold his party together.
I was a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference. I give one undertaking: I shall refer to it in my brief speech as little as possible, believing that the Committee has heard as much as it wants about the Conference's affairs.
In the debate so far, many of the advocates of change have said that those of us who oppose it can produce no evidence to support our view. They misjudge us in this. They are much more open to the argument that they who advocate change have even less evidence to offer. When we consider such background as the proposal has, it is extraordinary how little research, documentation, study and debate there has been in the public domain. What scant evidence there is to rely on the proposition that the voting age should be changed and, as the Government would have it, changed to 18!
Those of us who were concerned with the question have one advantage, that over a period of time we were bound to turn our minds to it and make some study of it. My study, through contacts with young people, confirmed the view I have heard expressed many times today, that there is no demand for change. Whenever I asked young people in the age group 18 to 21 for their opinion, I found that, broadly speaking, there was a majority against an enfranchisement. When I asked young people in the age group 21 to 24 whether they felt that three years earlier they were as politically mature as they now considered right in order to exercise the franchise, the majority was even more significantly against enfranchisement. I find that evidence as near to the truth of the matter as anything. I have heard nothing today to suggest that the contrary is true.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Dudley Smith) said in our debate on Second Reading on 18th November:
My second point is that no evidence of need has been submitted to us. To take a slight point first: some hon. Members might argue that the proposal was in the Labour Party Manifesto, and therefore that there must be a need to do something about it. I have never understood—and even the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) has been unable to explain to me—how this undertaking got into the Labour Party manifesto. I have a suspicion that somebody interested in the matter, perhaps researching away for years in a dusty room in Transport House, suddenly thought, "Here is my chance of immortality. I will slip this into the Labour Party manifesto. Nobody ever reads it. Nobody will notice." Once upon a time there was a celebrated, and perhaps apocryphal, case of a long and dreary Bill going through the House, into which the clerk of the promoting body, being unable to get himself divorced in any other way, inserted the words, "and the town clerk's marriage is hereby dissolved." It is said that the Bill duly went through the House and the town clerk got his divorce.
I had better not inquire of my hon. Friend, who knows so much about this, which town it was.
In this case the author was rather mistaken. He should have known then, and must know now, that not everything in the Labour Party manifesto gets done. The hon. Member for Reading (Mr. John Lee) was overjoyed that for once in a way something in a Labour Party manifesto was being done by a Labour Government. That was what gladdens his heart and will lead him so willingly to the Lobby. Can he think of nothing else to gratify himself with? There must be something. Why must it be votes at 18? Is there nothing else? Apparently, there is not. At least, the hon. Gentleman cannot tell me. The argument of need on this basis is specious in the extreme.
The same arguments have been put in a different way by the Secretary of State for Scotland, whom we are so sorry not to see with us now. In our debate of 14th October, he said:
We must accept the earlier maturity of our young people. We must accept that they are anxious to participate.
All right. If he says that we must, perhaps we must. But then he added:
But he still argues that there is a need, because by enfranchising those people we shall give them responsibility, we shall enable them to participate. Participation is all the rage. In a very revealing passage in a speech at this year's Labour Party conference, the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. George Brown) spelt out a similar view. He said:
We must make people feel they are participating.
Here again, there is a terrible flaw, because people do not want to feel that they are participating; they want to participate. They want the substance, not the shadow. Here we have the shadow of participation, the illusion of responsibility.
If he argues there is a need to give these to the age-group between 18 and 21, I would reply that there are plenty of people in this country who want to participate, who are not allowed responsibility, and they extend over the whole age range of the population.
I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman's argument is any less fallacious than many of his others. Is it supposed that by enfranchising that age group we should somehow lessen the number of demonstrators in the streets of London? Is it supposed that the age group 18 to 21 would study at home, and that the demonstrating body would be made up of under-18s and over-21s? The over-21s—those who are British nationals, and no doubt there are some in that category—have the vote already. The under–18s perhaps think that they are going to a football match, but if they are participating I doubt whether many of them know what they are participating in, and I doubt whether on reaching the age of 18 and acquiring the right to vote they would automatically feel themselves so responsible, so weighed down by the new power on their shoulders, that they would opt out of demonstrations.
On the subject of demonstrations, how many times have we seen even a small corner of Trafalgar Square filled by people demonstrating for votes at 18? Very few.
We have all been waiting with great patience to hear the fallacy exposed, and we have not heard it yet. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that to demonstrate equals irresponsibility, and that not to demonstrate equals responsibility? Is that really what he is suggesting?
—in Hansard, because it would take too long to explain to him. But other hon. Members have taken the point I am trying to make. The fact that he is not one of them is not my fault.
Another argument that is advanced for lowering the age to 18 is the imagined need for consistency. The hon. Member for Woolwich, West told us that what had convinced him that 18 was the right age was that this was the age of liability for service. It is the old argument, "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote" This is as bogus as it is outdated. Even those who base themselves on it in the cause of consistency may like to consider the facts in relation to the age at which Servicemen, at this time and in recent years, have been thought old enough to go overseas to serve, and so possibly to fight for their country.
I recently asked for some figures on this from the Ministry of Defence. They told me that Royal Marines in operational commando units are not drafted overseas below the age of 17½. The selection of Wren ratings for overseas service has always been limited initially to those over the age of 21, although those over the age of 18 may volunteer with the consent of their next of kin. The minimum age for Army service in Europe is 17 years three months and in other theatres 17 years six months. So there are considerable inconsistencies even in the age at which men and women are thought old enough to fight. In some cases, they are thought old enough to fight well before the age at which, according to the Government, they are now old enough to vote, the age of 18. So there is no consistency there. There is even the curious slant that Wrens are thought unable to look after themselves until the age of 21 and under that age have to acquire parental consent in order to volunteer for overseas service.
Another argument is that this is really a matter of no importance, that lowering the voting age will not make any difference and that 50 per cent. of the newly enfranchised will not vote while the others will split more or less equally between the major parties. That may be true, but it is no argument for lowering the voting age.
Similar to this is the argument that, anyway, there is a longish period between elections—and we all regret that—so that the average age at which new voters will go to the polls is about 21, and, since 21 is the age at which we are already giving the franchise, that is all right. This is just statistical sleight of hand.
One might as well argue that if the average age of all electors is now, say, 38, and one reduces the initial point to 18 years, this would only have the effect of reducing the average age to 34–and as 34 is the age of maturity by anyone's standard, what is wrong with that?
Before going on to the other absurdities in the Bill, will my hon. Friend draw attention to the provision in Clause 1 which says that a person will be able to vote if he reaches voting age on polling day and to the new procedure envisaged whereby persons will not be deprived of their votes because they have just come on to the register?
That new procedure is to be welcomed. Indeed, it is one of the few things in the Clause to be welcomed. However, the point my hon. Friend has made is true. Many people who will be able to exercise their votes will not be at the happy average of 21 for new voters but will be 18 years old on polling day. We have to talk about the 18-year-olds in this context.
I am not so worried as some of my hon. Friends about pressures to which new electors may be subjected, but I am concerned about the pressures which we in this House are subjected to by the situation which faces us. Hon. Members opposite are being whipped tonight —and on that issue I share the forthright views expressed by some of them in the debate. But the hon. Member for Penistone developed a different, much more dangerous and much less likeable argument when he accused my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) of being afraid of the young voters.
That accusation could better be levelled at hon. Members opposite in the present situation. But the implication of what the hon. Gentleman said was, apparently, that those who disagree with him are doing so only because they are afraid of the voters.
If the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at his views in print, I think he will find that he said what I have quoted him as saying, and the implications of what he said are profoundly undemocratic. It is an attempt, in what I understand to be police court parlance, to "put the frighteners in".
The prospect of a General Election is the ultimate frightener to the hon. Member for Penistone.
We are talking in this context about pressures upon Members of Parliament in considering the issue. The hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) says, "You are afraid of the young voters. You are determined that they shall not get the vote." This is a subtle—no, not a subtle but a deliberate and blatant attempt to warp our judgment.
The hon. Gentleman should not shake his head like that because the implication, put into terms of the hustiigs, is, "If you do not support votes at 18 you are not 'with it'. You are past it."
The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Huckfield) nods. Well, I will tell him. Since 1964, we have seen many examples of instant government. One thing is worse—"groovy" government. We are all too likely to see that "groovy baby", the Prime Minister, determined to get more and more "with it" as the time of the next election approaches.
I am sure that the House wishes me to reach my peroration. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] No doubt, the hon. Gentleman will be able to retaliate, if he is called, and I will reach my peroration all the sooner if he will stop gesticulating at me in that peremptory way.
I would rather be reactionary and right than "trendy" and wrong—and there are plenty of "trendy" people on the Government Front Bench. I have heard the evidence and have considered it. None of it suggests to me that 18 is the right age I believe that 20 is the right age and I shall vote accordingly.
I was a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference from the beginning to the end and I attended every meeting. My right hon. and hon. Friends who were my colleagues will know that I had misgivings from the very beginning about reducing the age of voting to 18. I do not view this problem from a party political angle. It was not up to me to decide whether the voting age should be reduced for the sake of the party of which I am a member. That is why I greatly regret hearing so much today about Scottish and Welsh nationalism. They have nothing to do with the problem with which we are involved.
I am well aware of the excellent work done in our schools in the teaching of civics and social studies. Most schools today devote part of their timetables to social and civic studies. Boys in our grammar schools today are much better informed about these things than we were when we were in school. But to be informed about civic matters is quite differentfrom bringing a mature judgment to political issues and it is that difference which is giving me some trouble. Knowledge is one thing; maturity of judgment is another.
Knowledge can be acquired, and it is the function of our education system to provide knowledge and information. Maturity of judgment is a matter of growth. but one does not grow more mature throughout one's life. When a man is 25, he is as mature in his judgment as he ever will be, and that is the point which I am trying to make now. Maturity of judgment is a matter of growth and information and knowledge do not necessarily promote maturity, although they add to its richness when maturity is reached.
Are we sure that our youth is enthusiastic about having the vote at 18? Some hon. Members have spoken of this today and have referred to the struggle by women to get the vote in years gone by. remember speaking to a group of young people aged between 15 and 20. Some were in grammar schools and some were in university colleges. They were discussing political questions. They were a group of young people assembled together because they were deeply interested in politics. I addressed them for half an pour or so, and there was a discussion at the end.
Without any prompting on my part, the issue of the vote at 18 became part of the discussion. As I was a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference at the time, I took no part and made no suggestions, but I told these young people that they should think about the matter carefully and then vote upon it Of the 25 or so in the group, at the end of the discussion three voted for and the remainder against having the vote at 18. That was an eye-opener for me. From then on I took advantage of meetings with groups of young people to ask similar questions and, as I have said elsewhere, it has become my firm conviction that our young people have not yet expressed an intense desire to have the vote at 18. That is my limited experience. All experience is limited, and there is not an hon. Member in the Chamber tonight whose experience is not limited.
It is said that youths get married at 18 in greater numbers today than used to he the case generations ago. Whether that is a good thing we will have to wait for the verdict of time. One would want to know the percentage of broken marriages entered into at too early an age, which is an important consideration. These young people apparently enter into a state of matrimony and look after households and so on, and so it seems only right that the age of majority should be reduced to 18 in accordance with this trend in society. But does that mean that the voting age should also be reduced for the same purpose? We are also told that men are liable to be called to serve their country and even to die for their country at the age of 18. I find this argument difficult to counter. It was true in the First World War and in the Second World War. But the two arguments are not relevant In any case, it is not to the honour of any country to expect young men of 18 to die for it, and that is why I stress that this argument is irrelevant.
My conclusion is simple. It is the view which I expressed in Mr. Speaker's Conference. As the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) will know, in Wales we have an expression, Y wal ddi-adlam. I know that the hon. and learned Gentleman will have understood me but, for the sake of other hon. Members, I may say that it means, "The wall that once you have gone over it, you cannot leap back". Once taken, the decision to reduce the voting age to 18 will be irrevocable. I do not want the age to remain at 21 and I wanted to reduce it to 20, leaving it to future conferences, in the light of experience. if necessary to reduce it still further, because the British Constitution cannot go very far wrong if it moves from experience to experience.
I have listened with great interest to a large part of the debate on this very important matter and I can well understand the same kind of debate taking place when Mr. Baldwin decided to give the "flappers" the vote. It is exactly the same argument, but I am glad to say that in the long run Mr. Baldwin triumphed and the flapper got the vote.
I shall certainly vote for votes at 18. I had the unique experience of being allowed to stand for Parliament when, though I was defeated, I might have been elected and allowed to take my seat at a time when by law I did not have the right to vote. If one can have anything more ridiculous than that I cannot possibly imagine what it is.
I was defeated, so I did not take my seat at a time when I was not entitled to vote. To go through the whole process again, all the arguments made when Mr. Baldwin wanted to introduce the flapper vote, to have that all over again fills me with despair. I was interested that so many of my Parliamentary colleagues have argued that we ought not to say that one should not be deprived of the vote but at the same time he expected in time of war to fight for one's country. This view must be outmoded now among my Parliamentary colleagues. I feel very strongly on this.
I suppose that is because I have been through two world wars. I certainly think that people who were called up and had to fight for their country should at least have been allowed the right to take part in voting on policies which can affect, as we see it, either peace or war. Having lived a very long time and heard so many arguments in the past which are being brought forward now, I just wanted to say that I am delighted that this Government, which I oppose so wholeheartedly, at least thinks that we ought to be entitled to vote at 18.
I have great confidence in the young, and if people do not want to vote they do not need to. We ought not to "hijack" people into voting. The only point put forward which merits some thought is that about the possible buildup of pressures. But most people at the age of 18 have their parents to offer, at any rate, guidance and advice, and I do not therefore think that there is a very great deal in the suggestion that pressures may build up. They always will do so. With a new franchise Bill, containing some good and some bad points, finding its way on to the Statute Book, I am delighted to have the opportunity of voting for the young so that they may have the right to exercise the vote at 18. That is all I wanted to say on the matter.
Despite the somewhat awesome prospect of joining the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) in the Division Lobby this evening, I should like to oppose the Amendment moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss). There has been a great deal of arrogance in the debate this evening. Time and again hon. Members have got up and claimed to speak on behalf of young people. I have spent most of my working life with young people. Before I came to this House I was secretary of one of the national voluntary youth organisations and since the age of 16 I have been involved with political youth organisations. I was the national officer for a political students' movement and I was president of the students' union, but I certainly would not have the arrogance this evening to claim to speak on behalf of young people.
I wish that we would simply confess that we do not know what the view of young people are on the subject of votes at 18. There has been a good deal of discussion, but precious little evidence. We had the discussion about what Mr. Speaker's Conference said, but there was no real evidence then, because we are not entitled to see the evidence. All that I got out of the exchanges between hon. Gentlemen opposite and my hon. Friends was that someone, at some stage, said something to someone else. I was not clear what that was. There is no evidence in this direction.
I was coming to that. It seems that the only basis on which we can make any personal judgments about what young people think is the basis of our own experiences. We are all entitled to remember our youth and to remember what we felt at the age of 18, to remember how mature or immature we were then, and to make purely subjective arguments on that basis. This is fair enough, but what is not fair is to quote doubtful evidence. The only hard evidence available to us is that taken by the Latey Committee.
Certainly in other matters that seems to point towards the need to lower the age of responsibility to 18. I fully accept that this is not an ipso facto argument for lowering the voting age to 18, and those of my hon. Friends who claim this are going a bit too far. In moving his. Amendment my right hon. Friend made the charge to which the hon. Lady has referred, that no one under 21 wants to vote. As I said on the Second Reading debate, when looking through the debates of the 1917 Representation of the People Act, exactly the same argument was used about women—that they did not want it.
This is not evidence, and there is no evidence of what young people want. I am sorry that he is not here, because the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) said that young people apparently did not know very much about what was going on in local government. All I know is that when I have my regular surgeries 90 per cent. of the problems which my constituents bring to me ought to be taken to local councillors, and people simply do not know this. They do not know that the local councillor is responsible for housing, not me.
One cannot take evidence from young people's views on local government. One of the problems of local government is that far too few people know very much about what is going on. Again, the hon. Member for Ormskirk gave us what he called evidence about a poll taken—I was not quite clear where this organisation was—by a Young Conservative organisation. Fair enough, it has had a poll. Young Conservatives, like other Conservative organisations, take some rather strange decisions on occasions. From memory I believe that the Young Conservative organisation spans the ages from 16 to 35, and I should like to know how many of those people who took part in the poll were in the relevant age group, and how many voted against this because they were satisfied that they had the francise while others did not. Even after a few short years one can get very out of touch.
It has been argued that it is necessary to have experience, and this is a serious and important argument with which we should deal. Generally I accept this view. I have always taken the view that it would be a healthy thing if young people could do a few years' hard work after university or college. It is no good quoting this argument about experience if we are prepared to accept the situation in which a good many people aged 21 or over have no experience of life. What experience of real life has a doctor after a five or seven-year training period? He leaves his grammar or comprehensive school at the age of 18 and spends his years up to 22 or 23 in a college or university. He cannot, therefore, have any experience of everyday life or of the problems of bringing up a family and making a living. If we take the argument to its logical conclusion, we should raise the voting age. If one accepts that argument, based on experience, that is what we should do.
Perhaps it could be suggested—and there is a good valid argument for suggesting it—that the time that one reaches maturity is when one has a family and family responsibilities. It may be 18 or 19 years of age, or it may be 25 years of age. Would we be in favour of raising the voting age to 25, and on what basis—for the first, second or third child? One could find all sorts of excuses for refusing to give people the franchise.
I will not pursue the point about those unfortunate people, some old and some not so old, who are not capable of taking rational decisions. If we are talking about political maturity, there is plenty of evidence in reputable opinion polls that most people over the age of 60 are almost incapable of changing their political views and that they vote out of pure blind prejudice. They have voted Tory or Socialist all their lives and they will not change.
I hope that, like my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), I shall be one of the exceptions and that I shall have the wit, humour and willingness to change my mind just as he and my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. S. O. Davies) have.
The argument has been advanced that young people are not capable of making mature judgments. Once we get involved in this argument, we can take it to an absurd point. It has been suggested that young people have not the right to contribute to political decisions because they do not accept responsibility. I am sure that the Opposition, when we come to that part of the Bill dealing with the local government franchise, will argue very powerfully that there should be no taxation without representation. I do not necessarily agree with them. If they are to advance that argument, then hon. Members opposite who are opposed to votes at 18 had better be careful. If we were to look at the figures for consumer spending among people between the ages of 18 and 21, we should find that this was a sphere in which the Government collected a great deal of taxation. In that respect alone the young people are contributing to our national budget and economy.
We should not make up our minds on the basis of how young people may or may not vote. I do not know how they will vole. I have seen all sorts of surveys into this matter, and they merely serve to confuse me. It is true that, on the whole, young people tend to rebel against the Establishment. At one time the Gallup Poll figures showed that they disliked the Conservative Party intensely. I am sure that now that we are in office the Gallup Poll would show a similar feeling about the present Establishment. This does not worry me. It is healthy for Governments that young people should show a little disrespect for the Establishment as such.
I turn to the argument concerning nationalists. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell), I am frightened about the growth of nationalism. I agree with him completely that this is a deplorable growth in a world which should be coming closer together. But I am not sure that we should say that young people should not have the vote at 18 because they may decide to vote nationalist. Is it not a good reason for us looking at our own policies and views about Scotland and Wales? If young people reject our views or those of right hon. and hon. Members opposite, perhaps we should start considering them again. There is something which is taking people into the nationalist camp in Scotland and Wales. I do not want them to be in that camp and we should start doing something about bringing them back.
Most of these argument are inconclusive. Nobody can claim that there is a measurement for political maturity and that there is a certain length of experience. We cannot claim to know what young people want. There is a much better basis on which we should make up their minds. We should consider for a moment what the vote is for and what we mean by democracy. Some hon. Members opposite spoke about the vote being a privilege. I resent this. It rather lets the cat out of the bag. I remember my father saying to me, "You are privileged because you have a job. You are privileged to walk across someone else's land".
It may be their right. I reject the idea that the vote is a privilege. It may be a right, but I would not even stand on that.
The classic argument for democracy—and I tried to make this point on Second Reading—is that the vote is important because it makes the governors consider the interests of the governed. This was the real argument for votes for women. The argument was not whether women were more or less intelligent or whether they did or did not want the vote. The argument was that unless women had the vote Governments of men were not likely to consider their interests. If it had not been for the female franchise, would there have been concern for children and children's legislation? Would there have been the demand for family allowances? Would there be insistence on food subsidies if there were no mothers in the House who knew all about food subsidies? Would there have been the demand for better health and nursery schools? I doubt it very much if it were left solely to us men to make such decisions on behalf of our families.
The result of giving the franchise to women was not to make women as political animals any happier but to make the Government better because they considered women. The other interesting thing about women's franchise is that it did not result in bright young things or pop idols securing election to the House. The flappers did not flood into the House when they got the vote. In the main, women carried on voting for men. The same thing will happen among young people. They will tend to vote for Members of Parliament not unlike those we have today, but the difference will be that those Members will have to concern themselves with what young people want.
The argument for votes at 18 is not a case of the age of 18 against the age of 21 but simply that young people play a much greater part in our society in terms of the work that they do, the taxes which they pay and the way in which they participate and try to understand what is going on. There is no particular age for this. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading (Mr. John Lee) said, we are taking a quite modest step in the right direction. I do not believe that we can decide this matter on logic or on hard evidence. We can merely make subjective judgments. My subjective judgment is that carrying the franchise into law at 18 will make for a better system of local and Parliamentary Government.
I am in favour of lowering the voting age to 18, and I shall vote accordingly. I should like modestly to urge the Committee to resist this Amendment and, if it is not out of order, to suggest in passing that it should vote for the Clause.
I found it very difficult to decide what was right about this matter. Having decided, I still find it very difficult to justify, both in general, and, in particular, why, if we are to lower the voting age, it should be to 18. I find it difficult to justify lowering the voting age because I am sure that, as the hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. J. Idwal Jones) said, the great majority of those who will be affected positively do not want this vote and are certainly not particularly enthusiastic about it. Although it would not and should not influence me unduly, this is most certainly true of Young Conservatives. They have made this positively clear in motions which they have passed in national conferences.
The second reason why I find it difficult to justify is that, whatever may be the view of those young voters who will be affected, the proposal excites great antagonism among the old, and the older the person the greater the antagonism.
I am also embarrassed in justifying it by the antagonism to the proposals of Conservatives who fear that this will bring an avalanche of disagreeable Labour votes from disagreeable young voters.
To deal with the last point first—the fear that this will unduly benefit the Labour Party—I do not think that this is a valid objection, much as I would deplore it if I thought that it would happen. If the ideas of franchise, of representation, of democracy, whatever we may mean by that, and of government by consent of the governed are good ideas, they are good ideas not because the Conservatives win or Labour wins, but because they are good ideas. Therefore we should not be over-concerned to examine the question of whether A or B will win.
It is, nevertheless, interesting to notice the result of a poll on the effects which this will have on the fortunes of the parties; not, as I say, that it is a valid argument in favour, but it may influence the view of many people. In the age group of 18 to 21, 90 per cent. are of the same political party as their parents; of them, 80 per cent. of Conservatives will vote and 20 per cent. will not. Of them, again, 60 per cent. of Labour supporters will vote and 40 per cent. will not. Of the 10 per cent. who take the opposite political view to their parents. 7½per cent. are rebels against Conservative parents and 2½per cent. are rebels against Labour parents. The rebels against their parents will vote 100 per cent.
If this is applied to the General Election there will be, if anything, a slight Conservative advantage, but that should neither commend the lowering of the voting age to Conservatives nor tell against it in the judgment of Labour supporters. Least of all should it either commend or tell against it in the judgment of the Committee. The duty of the Committee is to have regard to the electoral health of our democracy, to keep society reconciled to, and if possible enthusiastically in favour of, our form of government. The Bill is partly about that and we should therefore judge it on that criterion.
I was just coming to that. This is the Iremonger poll. I took the view, as there are so many presumptuous, self-important ninnies going round asking stupid questions, why should not there be one more? But, seriously, I think that this is as near a shrewd and true assessment of what will happen as one is likely to get. This is not an entirely capricious or arbitrary assessment. I have asked a great many people, and this is the conclusion to which I have come, not unsupported by much less easily available second-hand evidence from others.
May I now turn to the first of my objections, that there is little enthusiasm for this among the people who will receive the franchise. The answer is brief and has been given already by many hon. Members. If they do not want it, they need not vote. This is not to be compulsory, like some people's ideas of repatriation. People are not to be dragged screaming into the polling booth and told to put a cross here or there. This is a voluntary scheme.
The second objection I named, that this is very much resented by the older generation of electors, is much more serious. The House, and the Committee now, should think long before consciously going against what would be accepted as the view of the great majority of the electorate. The electorate is suspicious of the House of Commons and of this Committee. Time and again one is told that one is not representing their view. They want to flog everyone, hang everyone and do a number of disagreeable things which they are sure would solve all the problems of humanity. They say, "You are elected to Parliament to do what we want, and you do the opposite". The Committee ought to be aware that we would be going against the strong misgivings of a great majority of the electorate. But I have or, occasion regretfully done what I thought was right and in the best interests of the people whom I represent, even if they did not agree with me at the time, or ever, and I will do so again.
I am convinced that the misgivings of the older sections of the electorate at the prospect of having voters of 18 to 21 voting at an election are unfounded. This is bound to be a purely subjective judgment, which cannot be proved one way or the other. Hon. Members have spoken of the "evidence" that was given to Mr. Speaker's Conference. What "evidence" can there possibly be on a matter of judgment? Each hon. Member must decide how he feels about this, and if others do not like it they will have to lump it.
The quality of the young people who will be invited to vote is a matter which comes into this. What are the values that one wants in the electorate? The idea of maturity is suggested. I do not know what is meant by maturity in this context. I know what is meant by maturity in personal relations. I know that a mature youth is one who can relate to his brothers, sisters and parents. I know what a mature brother, father, mother or sister is. Maturity can be recognised in comparing the chronological and social age of people, but it cannot be established in respect of matters of political judgment. Political action is usually a combination of suppressed aggression, a degree of intellectual conviction and an element of pure blind prejudice. I do not think that the young will be very different from the old in that.
One has to ask oneself, rather, if the young are more brave or more cowardly than the old, more truthful or more deceitful and hypocritical than the old. more ruthless and unkind or more merciful than the old. Those are the qualities required, possibly spiced with a little intelligence and receptivity of mind.
Looking back on my own experience and that of my contemporaries when I was between the ages of 18 and 21, I should say, on the whole, that the young are about as cowardly as the old, just about as truthful as the old. Some are more merciful and others more merciless than the old. It breaks about even. But I must say that in my relationships with young people now, I find them less cowardly, less hypocritical and untruthful and less merciless than my contemporaries were; and, on the whole, I am sure that we would do very well for the older generation if we gave the benefit of the doubt to the younger ones. All this is a matter of judgment, hunch and prejudice. There is no question of providing it by evidence. One has to decide as one thinks best.
The real argument in favour of giving the vote to people of this age is that the only way to get the best out of people is to give them responsibility and opportunity and to ask them, "What shall we do?". That does not mean necessarily that one has to accept their answers, but one ought to ask them and be prepared to listen to their suggestions. It may be that they are right but, if they are wrong, one should be able to say, "I understand, but, with respect, there is this or that objection". If one can carry them with one, well and good. If not, at least one has not totally lost their respect.
The surest way of bringing the worst out in people is to say, "You do this. You shut up. This is how it is done. I will tell you. I am Big Daddy". That is the absolute denial of leadership and the sure way to forefeit their confidence. It is not necessary always to ask everyone's opinion and to be frightened of giving orders. In the Royal Navy, in which I had a little experience of real life, if one is to hoist a sea boat, one does not ask the crew how or when to do this or that. One says, "Hoist away". That is a command-and-obey situation. But if one is planning an operation or making a disposition about a ship or flotilla, even if one has a shrewd idea of the likely answer. it is better to say, "What do you think?". If one receives an unexpected reply which, on reflection, one feels is right, one should be prepared to be swayed by it. People under the age of 21 often have to submit to command-and-obey situations where it is only possible to say, "Right!You go there, and you do that, and do it pretty fast". When it comes to carrying their confidence in the larger issues of life, however, they should know that their views are being taken seriously. We in this House, as members of the older generation, should not be frightened of that.
The proposed enlargement of the franchise will. I am convinced, be a benign and powerful source of refreshment to the body politic. Because it will challenge to activity many who now sulk and sneer because they have no responsibility for the political life of the country. I believe they are people who could bring fine qualities of idealism, intelligence and concern to public life if demands were made upon them.
I see a lot of people about whom the Clause will legislate. At least once a year, I go to every grammar school in my constituency—with one exception where the headmaster has managed to keep me out, but I shall bowl him out this year. I cannot go to every secondary modern school, because that is not physically possible, but I go to every one that asks me, and a number of them do. I make one appeal to each school I visit. I tell them, "This is your country, your Parliament and your Government. I do not mind whether you join the Labour Party or the Conservative Party, though I hope that you join the Conservative Party. But what I do hope will not happen is that you will stand on the sidelines and protest that politics is a dirty game and that you will have no part of it."
I ask them to take part in public life and join a political party. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) will be glad to hear that I do not leave matter there. I say to them, "Each year, we will have a debate. I will move a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty's Government, and the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Arnold Shaw) will oppose it." That is right, because we want to have a proper political debate, but I do not care to say what I think about the Government without having someone there to answer for them.
That is the right way to involve the electors of the next generation—who, I hope, will vote at the next General Election—in their responsibilities for this Parliament. However, on one occasion when I went to debate against the Government at a grammar school, a number of revolutionary Socialist students honoured me by throwing paint over my car as a protest against I know not what. When I invited them—
I remember the incident very well. While I do not condone the action, this is the first time that it has emerged that the lads who painted the car were revolutionary Socialist. There may be another reason why the hon. Gentleman's car was painted, and again I do not condone it, but it is a bit much to come to this august House and depict various of those lads as revolutionary Socialists. It gives them a title which they do not deserve.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but if he will be patient for a moment, I think that he will be with me. I said publicly to them, though I did not know their identities, that I hoped that they would come and talk to me. They did. They were not only revolutionary Socialists, as they told me—
The right hon. Gentleman is right. They did not know very precisely what it meant. After some discussion on the Terrace of this House, we came to the conclusion that both they and I were just bloody-minded anarchists. The hon. Member for Ilford, South can bear me out in that trivial reminiscence, because he saw them at the school, although he did not know who they were. The point is that they were very fine, thoughtful and sincere young men. I came to the conclusion that if I and this House and our country's institutions had lost their confidence, that was a condemnation of us and not of them.
I do not think that we need fear too much about the quality of person who will come into the electorate as a result of the Clause passing into law. What we have to fear much more is the qualities that we in this House and others of our generation bring to bear in our relationships with them.
The impression I have, from quite frequent and extensive contact with the people concerned in the Clause, is that there is a frightening degree of cynicism among them about Parliament and our institutions, but that it is really only a reflection of an idealism in their minds about what we should be and how our affairs should be conducted. I think also it is largely a reflection of their complete failure to understand how public affairs have to be managed. I had a strong impression of their remoteness and reluctance to take part in public life. They manifest a sense of shock and horror when I say that if they do not like it, it is up to them to make it better. They feel that this is something in which they ought not to be involved.
I have always come away from these meetings with a very strong sense of the penetrating and open-minded approach that they bring to political problems. Many of the most difficult questions, in the best sense, that I have ever had put to me, have been put in the senior forms of schools in my constituency by the people to whom I have been to speak. Of all the public meetings that I have addressed over the years, I think that I have had a dozen or so really penetrating questions that have made me start to think the thing out right from the beginning. and more than half have come from people not only under 21, but under 18. Therefore, it is not a bad thing that they should be able to carry their inquisition to the hustings with a real role to play and a determination to vote one way or another.
Dr. Johnson said,
when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.
The knowledge that they will vote in a year or so will concentrate their interests on public life enormously.
Finally, the introduction of responsibility to the 18 to 21 generation will bring a little more realism into demonstration and protest. I say to my demonstrating and protesting students, "If this is the way you feel, you should put up a candidate for Parliament and vote for him or her. After all, if you lose your deposit, there ought to be 300 of you who can fork up 10s., or whatever it is, if your cause is worth standing for. Stand for Parliament. That is the place in which to protest. If, as you say, everybody mistrusts me, and mistrusts the hon. Member for Ilford, South, and mistrusts our respective opponents, and thinks that the whole thing is phoney and you would rather be represented by beautiful people, you should vote about it." But somehow this is not on.
I am sure that part of the reason is that, for a large proportion of the people who are demonstrating and protesting, the possibility of voting is six or seven years hence. Therefore, the possibility of it being closer at hand ought to bring a little more realism into the protest. The protesters either believe in majority government or they do not. If not, they believe in minority government. If they believe in minority government, they have to answer the question: which minority is to be the government and how is that to be decided? There is only one way of deciding which minority, among a number, shall govern, and that is by the sword and the gun. Therefore, there is much to be said for majority government. But if we are trying to regain the confidence of people who have lost confidence in majority government, we cannot go far wrong if we introduce them at the earliest possible moment to the processes of democracy which create consent and acceptance and proper evolutionary change. Those processes are in danger of being forgotten and not handed on in their full vigour to the generation which will have to uphold them. I think that the Clause will be an instrument for handing on our processes and that it ought to be supported, and the Amendment rejected.
The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger) has introduced a more philosophical note into the debate than was apparent at an earlier stage in our deliberations this afternoon. His speech was the more welcome for that.
What struck me as rather astonishing about the earlier part of the debate was the dogmatism of Members who supported 18 and 20 respectively and who appeared to find no difficulty in coming to a conclusion on the matter. The choice of the age at which people should be entitled to exercise the franchise is essentially difficult and arbitrary. For that reason, I found my task on Mr. Speaker's Conference more difficult than my task as a member of the Latey Committee which had to consider certain specific areas of the civic law.
I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) injected into the debate an altogether unwelcome, vociferous and personal note of vituperative hostility. I submit that it was an effort to discredit the working of Mr. Speaker's Conference and to suggest that it had no relevance or to so diminish its relevance that we would discard its considerations. In this the hon. Member for Penistone naturally found some support from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, because Mr. Speaker's Conference came to an overwhelming decision in favour of votes at 20, and this has to be explained away or at least discounted.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Penistone is not here—I understand the reason for his absence; this has been a long debate—because I suggest that he was upbraiding members of Mr. Speaker's Conference who had waited for Latey rejecting the relevance of Latey in considering the age for voting. He has come here tonight and said that we should reject the findings of Mr. Speaker's Con- ference, whose report the Government were awaiting. It is clear, therefore, that Mr. Speaker's Conference has some relevance to our deliberations this evening. We can only conclude from the debates at Mr. Speaker's Conference that there was a vast majority in favour of the age of 20. We do not have the reasoning. We only have the voting. We have heard the views of individual members of that conference—hon. Members may feel that perhaps too many of them have spoken—and their views stand or fall by the weight of the arguments that have been adduced and not by the dignity or importance of the conference.
This is an extremely difficult subject and there is nothing illogical in finding for 20 as opposed to 18, as Mr. Speaker's Conference did, albeit the Latey Committee made certain recommendations for changing the law in those spheres of the private law which it had to consider. Nevertheless, the Government have, on balance, made out a case for altering the law in regard to the franchise in a way which would bring the civic law into line with the general law on the age of majority.
I support them—and not because it is possible to determine even approximately at what age young people become mature for this civic function; I include all people within the wide age bracket 16 to 25–not least because youngsters have a different way of looking at public affairs. They bring into their consideration of great public issues a simple idealism which is enormously valuable. They concentrate their thoughts on the simple issues of war and peace, of the need to help members of the community who are inadequately provided for, of the need to assist the developing nations and of the need to inject into our public life a simple idealism. What these youngsters lack in experience they make up for by this quality.
There is no great pressure on Parliament to change the law in this respect. and this is indisputable. We are not seeing a situation comparable with that of the suffragettes seeking to win the vote. Nevertheless, if we can import into our public life the idealism of the young, in however small a measure, we will be serving our body politic well.
I will not detain the Committee, particularly since most of the arguments have already been well rehearsed. I intervene only to explain the way in which I shall be voting.
Much play has been made with the possibility of influence being brought to bear on young people. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) did not deal with this aspect in his remarks, but he will appreciate that Mr Speaker's Conference and many others who have been commenting on this issue have taken it into account. The hon. Gentleman's speech, which paid particular attention to Mr. Speaker's Conference, was entirely relevant and useful until he began to predict that the Government had presented a case which could over-ride that of the conference. It was at that point that I parted company with him, because I do not believe that the Government have presented an argument strong enough to over-ride the views of Mr. Speaker's Conference.
It is not for that reason alone that I shall be casting my vote for the Amendment. I ask the Committee to consider the way in which political parties will begin to recruit people to their respective political faiths—to prepare and organise them—before the age at which they will be entitled to vote—
Perhaps I may finish at least part of a point of view, and then if any hon. Members want to interject I will be delighted to give way.
I believe, on the whole, that if there is to be a vote at the age of 18, political parties will begin starting to recruit specifically from the age of 15 onwards. It is true that to some extent this is done now, but it is a very small extent. It is true also that some hon. Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger), and I myself, have spoken to sixth forms and have participaled in civic discussions with people at school, but that has not been the basic meat of politics as to all the exact reasons why people should take a certain political view or support a certain political party.
I honestly believe that it would be wrong and harmful to have either the Conservative Party or the Labour Party attempting to begin organising in schools persons of the age of 15 or 16.
That is neither a very new nor a very original interjection. I know that many political parties at many times have had major youth movements, and movements that have gone back much further than what some people would call the youth movement itself.
All I seek to suggest is that if the age is reduced to 18 there will be a much greater degree of political pressure during the last two or three years in school than anyone has ever seen before. I do not believe that that is good for our educational system. I do not believe that people who are having to take A levels and are worring about whether or not they will get into university want to be bothered—or necessarily ought to be bothered—by political parties attempting to recruit them because they will be going on the electoral register in another year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North said, as I recall: "The fact that they are going to vote in a year or two will concentrate their minds wonderfully". Therefore, I say that this is an ever greater support to my argument. I do not necessarily believe that at the age of 15 or 16 we should, through the House of Commons, say that it is a good thing to concentrate the minds of these young people specifically on politics and upon the political organisation of parties. This major reason, which has not been widely discussed, makes me feel that a reduction to 18 years is neither advantageous nor necessarily right.
The point has already been made, more often than not by supporters of the vote at 18 that, after all, the choice would be left to the individual persons; that they could go on the register or not as they saw fit. Having at one time represented a highly marginal seat, I also know that political parties go to very great lengths to ensure that people are on the register. One one occasion I defeated the present hon. Member for Reading (Mr. John Lee), and he defeated me later. When I defeated him by the massive majority of 10 votes, many people had many ideas where those 10 votes came from. I proceeded to organise people at the university in order to get them on the register in Reading, so that if the election came when the university was up—and there are many people over the age of 21 who still study only in the terminal time at universities—those people would be able to cast their votes for the Conservative Party. If there were any one specific thing which helped me in that Election it was a campaign to get a number of people at the university on to the electoral roll.
Political parties, particularly in marginal seats, go to very great lengths to ensure that people are on the register. I think this would be the case just as much when the voting age is reduced to 18 as it is with the age at 21. There will be this extra political influence put on to young people at the age of 17 because it is then that the influence will have to be brought to bear to ensure that they wish to be put on the register.
So far as I am aware those people use their home abode. As long as they choose that as their domicile I do not think there is anything illegal or incorrect in that selection by the individual.
I think the criterion is where one has a place of residence. If one has a place of residence there one is entitled to be on the electoral roll and university lodgings are a place of residence.
I am sorry, Sir Beresford, that I was slightly led off the Amendment, but I wanted to make certain that nothing I did was illegal or incorrect.
At the age of 17 a specific influence will be brought to bear on young people particularly in the case of marginal seats. There will not be much need for that in Honiton for probably there are more retired and older people there than in most constituencies in the country, but certainly it will be true of marginal seats.
These two arguments, in addition to those propounded by hon. Members who have spoken in support of the Amendment, are strong enough for me to think it right. Although one may be branded as out of step with the young, I think it right and proper to support the Amendment which would reduce the age to 20.
It does not amaze me at all that most of the speeches against extension of the franchise to the lower age have come from hon. Members opposite. In our history most of the opposition to extension has come from the party opposite.
I was rather surprised, however, to hear one or two adamant speeches from hon. and right hon. Friends which I would have thought more suited to talking about extension of the franchise to the 40s. freeholder. Some of the things we have heard from hon. Members opposite would have been far more appropriate when talking of the potwalloper or rotten boroughs, Old Sarum. just a mound. Downton, which disappeared under the sea, and Grampound in Cornwall which disappeared when disqualified for corruption. Those were environments far more suited to the kind of speeches we have heard from both sides of the Committee against extension of the franchise.
It does not hurt to remind ourselves that we are talking about the extension of the franchise to a very important group that so far does not have a voice in the Parliamentary process. It is because I think I can claim myself fairly close to that group that I want to make certain remarks about the extension of the franchise to 18-year-olds in preference to its extension to 20-year-olds. Many of today's 18-year-olds live a life completely independent and separate from their parents. In many cases these are young people who have moved away from their parents' home and who have jobs and family responsibilities of their own. In many cases, to all intents and purposes they live their lives as a separate entity.
Most of the speeches against the extension of the franchise seem to assume that we are talking about young people who are living with their parents and who are still at school. The 18-year-olds today are the young apprentices, the young people who are trying to buy furniture and who have to get a guarantor to sign the hire-purchase contract, the young people who are trying to get mortgages, the young people who in many cases must stand completely on their own two financial feet.
In previous extensions of the franchise we were talking of a group who, somebody had discovered, was affected by a whole block of legislation. Somebody suddenly discovered that women were affected by a whole block of legislation. It is time that somebody discovered that 18-year-olds are affected by a tremendous block of legislation. These are the people who are already paying Income Tax, who are paying their National Health and National Insurance contributions, who, though I do not like this and do not support it, have in many cases to sign on the dole, and who in many cases are affected by legislation and trade agreements of the type which has been mentioned tonight. These young people should be given some say in the formulation of legislation which affects them so closely.
Over the past four or five years Parliament has talked a great deal about the reorganisation of secondary education. It has also done some damnable things in further and higher education. This, again, is a whole block of legislation which the House of Commons has passed and which Committees of the whole House have considered but in which no say has been given to young people, many of whom know much more about this subject than some hon. Members. Young people who are affected by all this legislation and discussion should be given some say. In my view, 20 is too late.
It has been contended that these young people do not want to participate and that they have rejected the Parliamentary system completely. I must admit that I have noticed this. Time was when I used to be invited to attend colleges and universities and talk about one political party or the other. Nowadays if an invitation comes to me I am invited to go to a university to try to get undergraduates interested in the parliamentary system. This is the change which has come about. I maintain that it has come about because the young people concerned often cannot find a political party that suits them, but there is a good evidence to show that, when young people do find a political party which suits them, they join it. We have the instance in Britain of the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru. In the United States, there is the Peace and Freedom Party. These are parties which embrace young people, they are parties which express the sentiments of young people, and they represent the way through which young people long to participate.
If young people at 18 have not shown that they want to participate in the Parliamentary system by joining the established parties, they have in no uncertain terms shown that they want to change a great many things which are affected by what we say and do here. I am much encourage by the kind of expressions of controversy—to put it at its mildest and most neutral—which we have had from young people recently. At the least, they show that young people have a sense of concern and of curiosity. Young people want to do something about affairs on which they feel strongly. In many cases, the reason why they have rejected the existing political parties is that they are not confident that those parties will do anything about the matters on which they feel concern. When one considers the attitude of both sides of the House on isues like the Vietnam war, or the attitude of certain hon. Members on such questions as Rhodesian independence, can one blame them for forsaking the established party political system such as we have it now?
In my view, people of 18 above all, though this is true of people of 20 as well, have demonstrated that if they cannot find a political party which suits them through which they can participate, they certainly want to participate in the results of what our Parliamentary system does.
Many hon. Members on both sides have suggested that if the voting age is lowered to 18, we shall be talking to and appealing for the votes of young people who left school only two years before. But the average age of voting is 23 or 24 now; many young people—young adults as it is fashionable to call them—do not vote until they are 24 or 25. In many cases, therefore, the practical effect of introducing the vote at 18 will be that young people will be induced to vote for the first time at the age of 21. I am sure that that will be the effect on the average young voter at his first Parliamentary election.
The strongest point in favour of the change proposed by the Government is that, since the Second World War, this country and all countries of the western world have seen the development of a specifically teenage market. I do not say that one should, therefore, bring the voting age down to the "teeny-boppers" and all those who are affected by the teenage market, but it must be admitted even by hon. Members opposite, who always claim great experience of commercial affairs, that one of the biggest extensions of the market has been that into the teenage sector.
Young people nowadays are subjected to the commercial pressure which exhorts them to buy record players and records or to change their fashions every two weeks. If they can stand that sort of pressure they can stand the rather milder pressure exerted by political parties. I am not worried about the young people whom certain hon. Members during today's debate have called fragile or unable to stand up to pressure. I have no doubt that they can stand it. They have already shown that they can, and they will go on doing so.
I was not a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference, and I shall not dwell on that aspect of the matter. I think it suffices to say that, taking into account the average age of the members of the conference and the political connotations which the names evoke in one's mind, one need not be surprised—I do not care how they arrived at it—that they came out in favour of votes at 20. I should be a lot more convinced by Mr. Speaker's Conference had it included many more members of the 1964 intake, and particularly of the 1966 intake.
Since hon. Members on Mr. Speaker's Conference were nominated by the Chief Whips on either side of the House, does my hon. Friend think that those of us who served on it were put there in the hope that we should come out against votes at 18? I find it difficult to understand what the political strategy was, if the appointments to Mr. Speaker's Conference seemed to predetermine its conclusions—only to have those conclusions thrown overboard the moment they were presented to the House.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention, but he knows as well as I do that in certain ways in the House we have a seniority system second only to the kind that operates in the United States Senate. The fact that it takes hon. Members like myself—and this is no reflection on you, Sir Beresford—until quarter to nine to be called is a slight demonstration of this.
Sir Beresford, if you had listened carefully—and I am not being disrespectful—I said that this was no reflection on yourself. I certainly mean no disrespect to the chairmanship of the Committee. I am merely lamenting that we have a rather rigid seniority system in the House.
I think that you will agree, Sir Beresford, that it affects some more than others.
Some hon. Members have said tonight that the proposal affects their constituents in various ways. We have heard about opinion polls. One was apparently taken among Young Conservatives in a certain Greater London constituency. I need say no more about that. One was supposed to be taken in a group of young people aged 18 to 21 in the Midlands. I represent a West Midlands constituency, and I have never heard of it. One was allegedly taken in some kind of junior Hansard Society, which I think mainly comprised grammar school pupils. I should not say that the polls presented to us tonight could be said to be statistically random or in any way to represent a cross-section. [An Hon. Member: "Except the Iremonger one."] I would have referred to that, but I did not want to come under fire in the same way as I did five minutes ago.
I have yet to see a representative or random national opinion poll on votes at 18. Everybody has been saying that there is no evidence that young people want the vote. From the young people with whom I mix—I do not have to talk to them; I mix with them—I can say that many of my friends and constituents want to vote at the age of 18. One of my local newspapers did a random public opinion poll—I am sorry to say—and came to the conclusion that young people might not be all that interested in the political system and political parties, but they wanted the vote. Some were not prepared to wait until they were 20. They wanted the vote at the proposed age of 18. We have yet to have definite national statistical evidence to show that this is not the case. It has not been offered by hon. Members on both sides who have spoken tonight.
Since this is an issue which should cut across party lines, I regret that hon. Members on my side of the House will not be offered the opportunity of a free vote tonight. I shall vote against the Amendment, and I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will do the same. Since different age groups will obviously have different opinions on the question, and since people must make what is essentially a subjective judgment, they should be allowed to exercise the devotions and rights of their consciences. It is particularly regrettable that they should not be allowed to do so on this side of the House tonight.
But the strongest point is that we have a whole generation which is affected by a tremendous amount of legislation but as yet has no voice in the existing Parliamentary system. That generation, particularly those of it who are aged 18, wants a voice. I hope that votes at 18 will go a long way towards giving it to them.
I hope that the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) will forgive me if I do not follow him at length in his argument. However, I would say to him that, although, as a new intake to the House of Commons, he had to wait until 8.45 p.m. to be called, I, who was a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference and have progressed up the ladder of seniority a little further than he in the service of the House, had to wait until 9 p.m. to be called. Such is the fairness of the Chair in its selection. As the hon. Gentleman progresses up the ladder of seniority, I assure him that, night after night, he will go home frustrated and furious, those great speeches which would have made a difference to the world consigned to the many wastepaper baskets in the House, which I think are provided for that purpose.
One finds oneself much in agreement with some parts of nearly every speech made. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) wisely said that, in a matter like this, dogmatism cannot prevail and that it is something we should set aside. The hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Gardner) observed, also wisely, that there is no measurement of political maturity and that there cannot be, since it must be a subjective view for every one of us. He also said that enlargement of the franchise will produce, contrary to what so many hon. Members have said, roughly the same sort of House of Commons, because the voting habits of an enlarged electorate will produce roughly the same sort of Members of the House in much the same way as an enlarged electorate always has. I am sure that he is right.
Therefore, many of the expressions of fear uttered in the Committee do not really arise. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger) said that there was great antagonism to this proposal among the old. That may be so in his type of constituency but in mine I have met nothing of that. Nevertheless, I intend to support the Amendment because what we are about to take is a step that will be irrevocable, and I would prefer to advance slowly, step by step, than to take a step that we cannot reverse.
Much has been said of Mr. Speaker's Conference, of the fact that it was not unanimous, and of the Latey Committee. Little has been said, except by accident, about the lack of unanimity in the Latey Committee. But the Committee is not supposed to be debating either of these reports. We are supposed to be considering the Bill. I have said that once the law is changed in this way, we cannot reverse it. We cannot deprive people of votes once we have given them the franchise. We can only extend it.
To remark that the suffragette movement is comparable with what we are discussing is fantastic. Extension of the votes to women came as a result of a long and arduous campaign by women. For my part—and I can speak only subjectively, as I say—I have had no evidence from young people in my constituency that they have any great urge to have the voting age altered. Not only have I received no letters from them, or any body in the constituency, but I have not been approached or questioned about it at any of the many public meetings which I have held.
Therefore, we should approach Clause I calmly and soberly. One of the things which we should also bear in mind is that Mr. Speaker's Conference took no evidence which is not available to the Committee. The complaints about inaccessibility to its minutes simply do not apply. I wonder what effect the availability of the minutes would have on hon. Members. Some time ago, I had to speak to a senior form of a school on the work of a Member of Parliament. I thought that one of the best illustrations I could give would be the big yellow sheets, which set out the Standing and other Committees of the House of Commons, to try to explain how the House operated, and I also took with me the big files of minutes of the two years which I have served on Mr. Speaker's Conference, and that weighed 10½lbs. Some hon. Members had the pleasure of serving for three years and if hon. Members wanted to have those minutes, they would get about 14 lbs. of paper which they would have to try to digest, and I do not think that that is a starter for anybody.
I very much wish that service on the conference had produced anything in money. It produced paper and weight.
What is the right age of the suffrage? Should it be physical maturity? I think that that is utterly irrelevant. Height, weight and muscles would merely mean that the heavyweigh boxing champion of the world would have the best brain, and I think that perhaps that might be held to be a little questionable. No one can exercise his or her full responsibility until he or she has collected that intangible quality which is called judgment, which has nothing to do with party affiliations. Mental maturity or agility is not the same thing. Judgment is acquired only when a sufficient amount of time has elapsed for things to be seen in perspective, and to vote one needs to get things into political perspective.
A curious effect of the Clause as drafted, remembering that the constitutional life of our Parliament is five years, is that if the voting age is reduced to 18 years, anybody of that age will have been 13 when that Parliament was elected. Eighteen-year-olds would then vote only by remembering effectively one Parliament, that is to say, the latter part of that Parliament which comes into their memories. They will have to depend on the memories of their elders for the experience of earlier Parliaments. Paradoxically, therefore, the effect of this proposed change may well be to extend the electoral influence of the older age groups in the total electorate.
The question of what the age should be should be approached with care, without dogmatism and certainly without the impertinence of trying to ascribe political intentions to the new younger voters. I say to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland that we must approach this without dogmatism. It is wiser to approach it step by step rather than by this somewhat extreme move which the Home Secretary is proposing. Once one has extended the age to 18 one cannot do anything else, one is stuck with it irrevocably. To a certain extent, whatever age is suggested must be arbitrary, but once the age is altered to 18 it is final, and cannot be altered later. If it is extended to 20 maybe it can be extended to 19 and then to 18. Certainly once extended to 18 it cannot be taken away.
There is also the aspect of the burden which will be placed upon the electoral returning officers in all the counties. The Committee ought to be aware of the burden which it is putting on them. They will have to identify, and then enlarge the registers, by about 4 million people, if this Clause as it stands becomes law. It will place a lot of work and problems upon the shoulders of these people and their staffs.
This has been a very prolonged and interesting debate in which a great number of hon. Members have, quite rightly, participated. It is upon this Bill and the preceding Representation of the People Acts that have gone on to the Statute Book that the health of our electoral system and our democracy will prosper. Therefore, it behoves us to approach it calmly and soberly. Let us not burn our boats but give ourselves room to manœuvre later if that should prove to be an advantage.
Earlier the hon. Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward) said that she had had a unique experience. I, too, had a unique experience, although I did not share it with the hon. Lady, and that was standing as a candidate in a municipal election at the age of 21 when I did not have the right to vote because I was a "Y" voter. Since then I have had some interest in this subject, although until I heard the speech of the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) I had no intention of entering the debate.
He made a characteristically incoherent speech, a characteristically bitter speech, but it was one of those bitter speeches which failed to bite. When I was a candidate, before 1964, I called upon 500 "Y" voters in my constituency. What impressed me most was that almost every one said, "We are interested in politics but we have never considered it seriously, because we did not have the right to vote. It is only now that we are taking a very serious interest and examining the programmes of the political parties." The point that the hon. Member for Woking missed was that by giving people the vote one encourages them to adopt a more responsible attitude, one gives them an incentive to take part in civic affairs, to take a serious interest in such things.
Under our voting system the average age at which a young person votes for the first time in a Parliamentary election is likely to be between the ages of 23 and 24. Many of them will not vote until they are 25 or 26. This has to be considered in relation to reducing the age to 18. The other thing that has always impressed me about young people is their unselfish attitude towards politics. They were the most unselfish of all the people I called on during the election campaign. Out of the 10,000 people whom I called upon, who were on the electoral register, only one raised a foreign affairs issue, and the great majority did not raise any issue at all. These young people were concerned about moral issues, not about their own petty needs, but about Vietnam, Oxfam and helping people who were starving, who had never eaten a square meal in their lives. They were concerned at the cancer of racialism which is increasing to some extent in this country.
It is not young people who are responsible for many of the difficulties in which we find ourselves and many of the traumatic experiences of the world in recent years. But, above all, they are orientated, not to the past, but to the future and therefore have a great deal to contribute. I was much impressed by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Gardner), who said that women's interests are looked after in the House because women have the vote and, therefore, that young people's interests will be looked after if young people have the vote. Their interests consist of the kind of society and quality of life which they will be demanding in future but which was beyond the realm of credibility for some of the older generation. They will be concerned about raising not only the material standard of living but the quality of life. This is an added factor which will contribute to a better society.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) was right when he said that some hon. Members opposite are afraid of giving young people the vote. He is right because they know that this will mean that they will take a more intelligent interest in politics and a more active interest in political argument. I reject the argument of the hon. Member for Woking, who says that young people do not want the vote. No evidence has been adduced as to whether the majority of them do or do not want the vote. All that we know is that some of them certainly want the vote. This is not an argument, because there must have been many ladies during the era of the suffragettes who did not want votes for women. Many slaves did not want to be freed because they were conditioned to an acceptance of their situation and it did not occur to them to try to get out of it.
The other argument which the hon. Member for Woking adduced was that if we ask young people between the ages of 21 and 24 to look back, they will admit that they were not mature at 18 to 21 years of age. But if any hon. Member looks back only a few years he will consider that at that time he was not as mature as he is now. Therefore, this is not a valid argument because we all feel that we are now much more mature. Sometimes the reverse is the case, because some of us become cynical and jaded about what we see in politics. Perhaps the idealism and freshness of some young people is something that we should try occasionally to emulate.
There is the classic argument that if one is old enough to fight at 18 one is old enough to vote. This is perhaps a hackneyed argument. But it is interesting that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Mr. J. Idwal Jones), who spoke against lowering the voting age, said that he found it very difficult to deal with this argument. It may be hackneyed but it is a very strong argument. The only way he dealt with this argument was to say that it is not to the honour of a country to expert him to die for his country at 18 but if that is so it is even less to the honour of the country to expect him to die at 18 when he does not participate in making the decision which sends him to fight at that age. Therefore, again, this is not a valid argument.
All the arguments advanced against the voting age being lowered to 18 have failed to answer the test of logic. What I found very strange was how, having rejected the age of 18, some hon. Members can say that the age of 20 is reasonable.
I have not heard during the course of the debate any argument for the age of 20, although I have heard many against the age of 18. I am, therefore, thrown back on what my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone said, although he and I often disagree. On this occasion, as an impartial onlooker, I am convinced that this must be a compromise, since nobody defends it. There are those who defend lowering the age to 18 and those who do not think it ought to be lowered. There are those who say that it should be 20, hut they give no reason. The reason for that it that this is a compromise, and no argument has been adduced to defend the age of 20.
The hon Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger) referred to a danger which is the crux of the matter. The hon. Member referred to young people in similar terms to the way in which I have referred to them, in respect of their interest in politics and idealism. He also pointed out a great danger, of which I become increasingly aware each time I speak at a university or to young people.
My generation is only a decade removed from university, and we can remember the Suez and other demonstrations in which we participated. We always believed that we had an answer in Parliament, through a political party, and that we could exert our influence through the democratic system. What disturbs me more than anything else is that the young people today are rejecting democracy. They reject this House. The radical element rejects the Labour Party as an instrument for change, and few think of any alternative instrument. This puts into jeopardy the whole Parliamentary system. There is a growing gap between those of us who try to use Parliamentary democracy for change and the younger generation, particularly those at university. We must reestablish a meaningful dialogue between those young people who reject the system and those of us who participate in it. One way of doing so is to help them to participate by giving them the vote, by giving them the right to exercise their judgment in selecting a political party. For this reason I support my right hon. Friend in rejecting the Amendment.
I recognise that there are hon. Members present who wish to speak, although I do not think that they have all been present throughout the whole day. I remind the Committee that we are still on the first Amendment in Committee and, if we were to take as long over every Amendment as we have over this one, it would be a long debate.
I thought it right not to intervene earlier, since this is the biggest single issue in the Bill, and it is appropriate that there should be a full day's discussion if the Committee so wish. We have had 24 speeches on the subject, so it cannot be claimed that every point of view has not been well represented.
In addition, we debated this subject almost exclusively both on Second Reading and on the White Paper, and most of the 35 speeches which were made on those two occasions traversed the same ground. We have, therefore, had a total of at least 60 speeches on the subject, and I hope the Committee feels that we have heard a sufficient cross-section of opinions to come to a conclusion on this important issue.
I have been present during all these debates and I do not think that we have heard many, if any, new arguments today. Indeed, the occasion has been perhaps less interesting in the deployment of arguments than in the self-revelation of the approach made by many hon. Members to public affairs. I do not say that anyone has done himself disservice or discredit, but it is interesting to see the way in which hon. Members approach their responsibilities. I felt that the descriptions which a number of my colleagues gave of their work with sixth forms and in other ways showed that not only are they the tribunes of the people but very good salesmen for democracy and the Parliament of Westminster. If all that work of telling people about the way in which our democratic processes are carried out bears fruit, we should end up with an extremely well-educated democracy.
I want to deal first with Mr. Speaker's Conference, because I think that we have it in proper perspective now. When I spoke in the debate on the White Paper, I paid proper and deferential tribute to the work done by that microcosm of our colleagues making up Mr. Speaker's Conference. I have always felt and, after the speech of the hon. Member for Peters-field (Miss Quennell) I reiterate, that, if in two years she accumulated 14 lbs. avoirdupois in the consideration of this matter, it only goes to show how much time our colleagues spent on it, and I think that everyone should be grateful for that.
However, they have a tendency to claim too much for themselves. We cannot accept the view that, even though they have spent all this time and no doubt a great deal of mature consideration on this among many other problems, we then have to put a date on what they did and rubber-stamp it through the House of Commons. That will not do as a view, especially as, judging from some of the tantalising revelations that we have had about what went on, with different versions from different people, I am not convinced that they reached the age of 20 as being the right age by a rational process of cool, dispassionate judgment, having weighed all the evidence that could be put before them.
We did not see their evidence, though I do not complain about that. I may be wrong, but I got the feeling that there may have been an element of, "If we do not support 20, it may be that some will want to go to 21, or it may be that others will even want that dastardly age of 18". It may be that what we have had presented to us by Mr. Speaker's Conference, with all majesty and authority, is the greatest consensus of view which could be obtained on this issue. Of course, one should not neglect a consensus. Obviously it is very important that one should get a consensus if possible, and I am the last to despise it. I see too many issues where false points are made when a dispassionate judgment would yield to reason in more ways than one. But, on this issue, it does not seem that this is a matter in which the House should put into commission its own judgment on what the appropriate age should be. Therefore, we should give Mr. Speaker's Conference all the weight that we normally give our colleagues who have spent a great deal of time in considering a matter, but we should not give it the authority that attaches, as far as I know, only to Papal pronouncements—and not even to those in these days.
It may be that this subject was too difficult and contentious to be referred to Mr. Speaker's Conference. What Mr. Speaker's Conference has done i9s to produce on a contentious issue the biggest common denominator of agreement of a conference composed of representatives from all sides of the House. That is what, traditionally, Mr.Speaker's Conference is intended to do, namely, to find an acceptable solution to a problem of constitutional importance which will keep it out of bitter party controversy and avoid a political crisis.
I am obliged to my right hon. Friend. I thought that I was trying to say much the same in different words, although I do not see the likelihood of provoking a constitutional crisis, and certainly the issue is hardly being decided on party lines.
The Amendment is distinguished by the signatures of some very senior right hon. Friends of mine. Indeed, I notice that every one of the signatures comes from this side of the Committee, although hon. Members opposite have intimated that they, too, have differing views among themselves. Therefore, I do not think that we are either in danger of two parties lining up against each other or of provoking a great constitutional crisis.
The right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) will no doubt work himself into a tremendous lather in due course, if I may anticipate the effervescence that I have come to expect from him.
If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is so much a creature of opposites that I will keep him quiet by forecasting, I think that is something useful. He will no doubt work himself into a tremendous lather about the use of the Whip on the Government side. This is an absurdity and no one will take it seriously—[Interruption.] I hope that hon. Gentlemen opposite can find something more than that to cheer about. It would be a strange matter if the Government of the day, which carries the responsibility—which the Opposition does not carry, much as it would like—of ensuring its business goes through, were to deny themselves the opportunity of indicating to their supporters what line they should take in the Division.
That is what I am doing—[An Hon. Member: "With a three-line Whip."] issue the biggest common denominator My hon. Friends sitting below the Gang-way will tell hon. Gentlemen whether of they have a three-line Whip or not.
My hon. Friends know that they have not got a three-line Whip. However, having heard my argument, I am sure that there will be no difficulty on their part in coming into the Lobby with me. That is he advice that I shall give them. It would be a strange matter if I did not indicate that that is the Government's view. I do not know whether I can persuade robust and relentless opponents like my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) or my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) who is, as usual, courteous and implacable in his opposition to the Clause and has fought it as well as he fought the Steel Bill through the House many years ago. However, I have no doubt that in the end the judgment of hon. Members will prevail. If there is a two-line Whip on this matter for the supporters of the Government, as there is, I am sure hat they will accept it in the spirit in which it is proffered.
We have had a number of very interesting speeches. I will pick out one or two at the very beginning, but I shall not take long in replying to them because all the arguments have been deployed.
It is a pleasure for me to say how much I agree with the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) that the Latey Committee was far too cynical in dismissing the argument, "If you are old enough to fight, you are old enough to vote". Indeed, after the First World War, the Government of the day temporarily introduced votes for soldiers under the age of 21 because they had fought for their country. Anyone who is old enough to fight for, and to put his life at the disposal of, his country certainly has the right to ask that he should be given the opportunity of a voice in its affairs. I regret this kind of cynicism which has been uttered by people who ought to know better.
I agree with the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger)—he is not here now—who said how little evidence there is about the matter. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) said, the hon. Gentleman introduced a philosophical note into the debate. But there is no doubt that a good argument can be found for almost any age which may be chosen. As the hon. Member for Ilford, North said, it is to some extent a matter of hunch or prejudice or a matter of how we consider young people.
It is obviously not the case that all wisdom is to be found in youth. Neither is it the case that all wisdom is to be found in age. I agree with the Latey Report that there is undeniably
…a great increase in maturity at the age of 18.
Certainly young people are maturing earlier now than they were 20, 30 or more years ago. As Latey said:
At that age"—
the vast majority of young people are, in fact, running their own lives, making their own decisions and behaving as responsble adults".
If that is true, then it seems to me and the Government to be a natural extension that if they are fulfilling their social responsibilities at the age of 18, they should be allowed to fulfil their civic responsibilities, too.
It was said in the Latey Report that those of the Latey Committee's witnesses who seemed most closely in touch with the young favoured 18 as the age at which it was not only safe to give responsibility but undesirable to withhold it. That view has been put to us especially by some of the younger hon. Members who have spoken today, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) and my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland.
It has been instructive, but not conclusive, that, on the whole, the younger hon. Members have supported the proposal for votes at 18. Although one cannot necessarily draw a conclusion from this, these younger hon. Members are naturally in closer touch with the young people on whom we are proposing to confer this privilege and responsibility than are many of us who saw 18 many years ago.
While it is true that Mr. Speaker's Conference voted overwhelmingly against 18–one must take this into account; I do not dismiss the argument lightly—very few reasons have been adduced by the members of that conference for choosing 20. Indeed, if there was one reflection that I had, having listened to a great many speeches in the last three debates we have had, it is that most of the case against 18 seems to have been posed in terms which would have led one to conclude that there was no case for reducing the age at all.
I suggest, with respect to those who were members of Mr. Speaker's Conference, that they have not put to me to my satisfaction any overwhelming or compelling reasons why they came to the conclusion that it was right to reduce the age from 21 to 20, but wrong to reduce it from 21 to 18. All of their speeches have been devoted to proving that 18 is the wrong age, but not to proving that 20 is the right one.
In the absence of evidence to this effect, and having heard all the arguments, I have come to the conclusion that they reached a compromise. They thought that something must be done and said, in effect, "Most of us do not like 18. As perhaps something must be done, let us choose 20; and if people find that that is not as dangerous as we think it is, then later they can go to a lower age." That is a perfectly respectable argument, but not more weight should be attached to it than it will hold. And in view of the substantial body of evidence from Latey on other aspects of this matter, I must put the evidence which has been produced and the study that has been made against the unrehearsed, unheard and unpublished views of Mr. Speaker's Conference.
The right hon. Gentleman is relying heavily on Latey. What puzzles many of us is how he finds it necessary to do that when the Government took a decision to put through this step before Latey had even reported. We have had no access to or report of the evidence which led the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to this conclusion. We simply cannot accept it as a fact that they may have been a little ahead of their time.
I will gladly allow the hon. Gentleman to instruct me on what the Conservative Party did, but I will not allow him to tell me what the Labour Party did. The Labour Party was not in a position to decide to put this matter through. Only the Government can do that. The Labour Party in its election manifesto offered a view on this subject, and offered a view on it to Mr. Speaker's Conference, but it is for the Government to take the decision. The Government took no decision on this matter. It is no use the hon. Gentleman shaking his head he does not know what went on—I do. The Government neither considered this matter nor reached a conclusion on it until some months after the publication of Mr. Speaker's Conference conclusions. That is the difference, and if the hon. Gentleman stays here long enough he will learn the difference, between party and Government on this particular matter.
The hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear that there are a number of matters on which the Labour Party has made representations to me on this Bill and on which I have not been able to meet the Labour Party. Some of us are able to separate the two responsibilities we hold in this matter, and I believe that if the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for St. Marylebone were Home Secretary he would adopt exactly the same line. It so happens that on some matters I agree with the Labour Party and on others I have not been able to meet it, but there is a distinction and a difference. I only dwell on the point because the hon. Gentleman has made the point before that we decided beforehand that we would do this, "so why bother to go to Mr. Speaker's Conference?" That is not so: the decision was taken afterwards.
I come back now to the question of votes at 18. I believe that these young people—and it is true of people of 19 as of 18—bring to this subject qualities different from those of us who are older. Others have given their opinion of young people, and if I were to give my view of them I would say that they bring a certain honesty and a certain simplicity to the consideration of public affairs and I find that simplicity extremely attractive. They see things much more clearly than many of us who are older do. Is there any reason why honesty and simplicity should not form a strand in the total electorate that is made up of a great many other people, including the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst), than whom there can be no one more cynical on these matters? Nevertheless, the hon. Member is entitled to put in his cynical vote and some citizens are entitled to put in an innocent vote if they wish, and all that goes to make up the great corporation of this country.
I would say, and we are all entitled to our own views—and a number of hon. Members opposite who would like to interrupt have not been here—that the older we get the more likely we are to vote on our prejudices, the more likely we are to vote on our interests, and the less likely we are to vote on this great matured judgment that I am told we only secure when we have been long enough in life to have had a long experience. I do not believe that for one moment. As I said on an earlier occasion, I think that young people bring a new and welcome dimension to the total body of citizens who will be voting. They have their own interests, and they have their own ideals, and I hope that they will seek to further them through the franchise.
I sum up what I have said. It will become increasingly difficult to explain to young people why for all social purposes they are entitled to regard themselves as adult at the age of 18, except on the question of the vote. I believe that this would be an anomaly that would become increasingly difficult to explain.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Gardner), in an excellent speech, said that when women got the vote it had the consequence of this House focusing much more attention on some women's problems than had been the case before. The difference in the debates after women had the vote from those of before was quite marked. I believe this House spent some time on problems of young people, but enfranchising young people will focus more attention on them and I welcome the proposal for that purpose.
For years we politicians in our perorations have been used to telling young people that they hold the future in their hands. That is a stock peroration which is frequently used, but the fact is that young people already play a real part in the present. It is the view of the Government that they should be entitled to take part in decisions and to shape the present as well as the future. For that reason I ask the Committee to reject the Amendment.
As we have spent a long time on this subject, I hope that the Committee is now willing to come to a conclusion on the matter after the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone has concluded his speech. This subject is the major part of Clause 1; there is nothing else of particular significance in the Clause. I hope that when the Committee has come to a conclusion on this matter the Committee will give us the Clause tonight and we can then move on to the ne)t business tomorrow.
I fully agree with one thing that the Home Secretary said. Had he not also spoken, certainly not for the first time on this issue, I would not have been apologising to the Committee for having to inflict yet another speech on it myself. We have had previous debates on the question and I would accept from him that the arguments have been fully deployed. I would not have inflicted myself on the Committee had it not been for the fact that I thought a speech from this Front Bench should follow and to some extent counterbalance the speech from the Government Front Bench.
There are two quite separate points in this debate. One is a matter of judgment and the other a question of constitutional practice. It has been apparent from speeches made from both sides of the Committee that the question of votes at 18 is not something which commands universal assent in any of the three parties—except perhaps the Liberal Party. I thought I sensed a certain difference between the Liberal Chief Whip who spoke for his party and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) who interrupted him.
I am delighted to hear that the Liberal Party is as disunited as usual and no more united than the other two parties. The important political fact underlying this debate is that the Government have got the Whips on and the Opposition have not got the Whips on. It is worth while discussing the implications of this. It is not just that the Home Secretary thinks fit to give advice to his supporters and that I think fit to give advice to mine which they will not follow. That is to take altogether too simpliste a view of the situation.
I should like to see a little experiment if the Patronage Secretary would cooperate. Let him have two Divisions. one with the Whips off, and one with the Whips on. I suggest that no one in this Committee seriously thinks that the result would be anything like the same. When a Government with a large majority put the Whips on and an Opposition. who in the nature of things are in a minority, say that there shall be a free vote, the Government will get a majority which is totally disproportionate to the real opinions of the Committee. This is what I find very difficult to stomach. The hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) who spoke from a vertical position, unlike the hon. Member for Yarmouth (Dr. Gray), said that the Government always—
I object very strongly to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's statement that the two results would be different. He said that nobody would disagree with him in that assertion. I disagree with him. On an issue of this kind, which is one of principle, my hon. Friends do not care whether the Whip is on with two lines or not. This is my contention against the right hon. and learned Gentleman's.
I have always thought that the hon. Member is amongst the most charming and naïve of all the Members of the House of Commons. Although I accept that his own vote would be cast irrespective of the party Whips, I am sure that the statistical results of the experiment which I have proposed would be sufficient to belie his confidence.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for repeating that crack which he makes so consistently. On the question of three-line and two-line Whips, is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that the most brilliant, the most able, the most witty and the silliest speaker we have here said in the Profumo debate that a three-line Whip is only a summons to be in attendance? That was the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg).
The hon. Gentleman is mistaken: I was not then a Member of the House and, therefore, not the most able of the Members who were here on that occasion.
I am sure that for the Government to offer strong advice on an occasion like this is a mistake. I think I know what would be, broadly speaking, the result of a Division if the Government had kept the Whips off. I think that I am in a minority, probably even in my own party, in supporting the Amendment and in opposing the change. I should like to know for certain as a result of a Division that I was right in that view. I never will know now, because the Government Whips will be on and the Opposition will not have the Whips on. I should have thought that this was the wisdom of the case.
Despite what the hon. Member for Woolwich, West said, there obviously must be a relationship between this issue and the Latey Report, upon which we have not yet decided in a definitive sense. I take a different view from that of the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss). There is a certain logic in having the same age of majority for voting and for making a will, for marrying without parental consent, or—not for making contracts, for we can all make contracts—for breaking a contract, which was the point at issue in the Latey Report. There is a certain logic there, and, although I accept from the right hon. Gentleman that the Latey Committee disclaimed such a relationship, I am in favour of tidiness in public affairs.
If my right hon. and learned Friend is in favour of tidiness in public affairs, in which way would he alter the law relating to driving licences and to homosexual offences?
There are limits even to tidiness, and I do not want untidiness pursued, as it were, as a principle. There is a great deal to be said for the view that the two subjects go together.
I have declared myself on this matter. I think it a mistake to tie people between the ages of 18 and 21 to their contracts. I believe that a certain number—not many, but some—of unhappy marriages will result from lowering the age from 21 to 18 at which young people may marry without parental consent. I see a relationship between the fact that young people do not wish to be tied to their contracts—this was established in the Latey Committee—and the view that they might not properly be given the right to vote.
The Government have nothing to offer to hon. Members of the Committee in the way of wisdom which they could not equally well find out for themselves. I think I know what the trouble is. My mind goes back almost to the year 1938 when I was first elected a Member. I once told a Whip, a Government Whip in those days, that I doubted that the Government were right on a certain issue. He said to me—I thought it the height of cynicism at the time—"We are not interested in people who vote for us when we are right. We are only interested in people who vote for us when we are wrong". As I say, I thought it the height of cynicism at the time, but the fact is that, when the Government put the Whips on, they are almost always wrong.
Why do we have to get up in Stygian darkness at 7 o'clock in the morning?—because the Government put the Whips on over British Standard Time. When will they learn that the House of Commons, left to itself, is wiser than Governments on matters of general legislative concern? Left to itself, the Committee is wise enough to defeat, if it wishes, the right hon. and so-called learned Member for St. Marylebone when he says that the vote ought not to be given to people at the age of 18. But we shall never know now. Hon. Members opposite are so meek. [Hon. Members: "Oh."]
I should certainly do it if the Government would do it; but I fear that that will not be so on either side. But this occasion, I think, is one when we could indulge ourselves in a little free love.
The debate came to life only when we stopped discussing Mr. Speaker's Conference and what went on behind closed doors. I accept that there are many arguments for making public the proceedings of the conference, though I doubt that a single Member would he influenced in his votes if they were published, every line and all 14 lbs. of it. I doubt that the report would be a best-seller. There are arguments in favour of it. There are also arguments against it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) suggested. What there cannot be any arguments in favour of is what has actually happened—an agreement to keep the thing secret and a conflicting series of speeches as to what actually took place. This is what I ventured to say during the course of—